Monday, November 28, 2011

Jefferson's Sons

I first became aware of Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley when Betsy Bird posted this review of it on her blog back in August. The novel chronicles the life at Monticello for the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemings. I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, but also hesitant to read it. There is a reason you don't see many reviews of historical fiction on this blog. I don't read a lot of it because when it is done poorly, as it often is, nothing annoys me more. (I was a History minor.) I have completely avoided the discussion on this book at Heavy Medal because I hadn't yet read the it, though I've heard most people there weren't as enamored with it as some earlier reviewers. (I will try to get to looking at it when the Christmas candy making is complete.) I couldn't resist reading Monica Edinger's thoughts when she posted them as they were about using real people as characters in a book, something that has always made me uncomfortable. And yes, I it made me uncomfortable here, particularly as I felt many of the thoughts and actions the characters were exhibiting were projecting philosophies and thought patterns people would not have had in the early 19th century. The book is certainly an interesting perspective we don't usually find on one of our Founding Fathers and also a perspective on slavery we don't ordinarily see, and I can see its value in sparking discussion to a certain extent, but my frustration far outweighed my enjoyment while I was reading it.

The novel spans 22 years and follows three characters. The first two perspectives are of two of Jefferson's sons, Beverly and Maddy. The third follows Peter, one of the other slaves on the plantation. It is a different look at slavery because Beverly and Maddy are slaves owned by their father. It is a complicated and messy situation and their feelings toward their father reflect this to some degree. Neither of them seemed like fully realized characters to me which may have been because neither story was followed through to the end from their own perspective. Peter was even less realized and never really established his own voice. I felt like his story was included solely for the emotional impact of the end. The characterization in the novel that disturbed me the most was that of Sally Hemings. She has conversations with her children in this book I can not fathom an actual person in the time period, in her position, having. I feel like the author took a woman who was a real person and a real mother and who, I'm sure, had some rather complex emotions regarding her situation and turned her into nothing more than a didactic voice. A didactic voice that preaches modern thoughts on the topics wrestled with in the book. Nothing will turn me off a book faster then didacticism and that is my largest complaint about the book. I couldn't shake the sense that the point of the narrative was to teach me a lesson rather than tell me a story.

If you are looking for accessible historical fiction on slavery in early America,  Jefferson's Sons works. It fell far short of the expectations I have when I'm looking for a good story though.

Note on Content: The book, while not going in to details, does make it clear that Sally sleeps at the house with Jefferson when he is there and there is, obviously, discussion about his paternity of her children. So you probably don't wan to hand this to a precocious young reader not entirely aware of the ins and outs of what makes babies.

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