Jefferson's Sons - A Founding Father's Secret Children
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Grades 6 - 9
Brubaker Bradley brings to life the story of the four children - Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston - that researchers have, after much prodding, historical research and DNA analysis, acknowledged Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
Brubaker Bradley's story begins through the eyes of Beverly Jefferson, the eldest of the four children who survived into adulthood, and follows the story through Madison Jefferson, the middle son, and finally, Peter Fossett, the son of the blacksmith, Joe Fossett, who was sold after Jefferson's death.
It is told from close third from just one character's POV at a time. When Beverly becomes a teenager, Brubaker makes an ingenious transition from his POV to Madison's. So much so, my ten year old exclaimed, "Mama, it's Maddy's story now!" It was like a magic trick that the audience sees but still marvels at. Brubaker Bradley is a pro. I learned a few new tricks.
The story revolves around family. In this particular case, a mother, Sally, who was a slave, yet became, for all intents and purposes, the second wife of Thomas Jefferson after his first wife died. And a father, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote all men were created equal yet kept his own children as slaves. And four children who were the slaves and children of one of the United States' most revered but, as we learn through walking in these children's shoes, hypocritical founding fathers.
Brubaker Bradley spent three years working on this book. It shows. She has taken so much material and blended it so seamlessly. The story is suffused with childhood, slavery, history, philosophy, politics, historical figures. They all come to life.
My youngest daughter and I listened to the audio of this book while in DC and Charlottesville for Spring Break. About halfway through the book, we went to Monticello, Jefferson's home. My daughter's been there before, but it hadn't stuck. This time, though, the home wasn't just one more historical building we walked through. My daughter looked for traces of Hemmings' family members, and Fossetts and Hearns. History wasn't boring. It was alive and had faces. It was so cool. We even listened to a part of the story while sitting on a bench on Mulberry Row, where the slave quarters were at Monticello. Afterwards, when we were listening to Jefferson's Sons
again in the car, my daughter said over and over, "oh, yeah", as she remembered the places that were a part of the story.
This is a book you don't want to miss. The writing is superb. The subject matter begs to be discussed. And the last scene is unforgettable.
There are so many excellent books that have come out for children that take historical facts and weave them into fiction that breathes with life. Another, for slightly younger readers, that embraces an African American wedding tradition, jumping the broom, that is inherently tied to slavery but may actually predate it is Ellen's Broom
by Kelly Starling Lyons.
I've never been much of a history fan, until now. Through these two books, I feel as if I've discover
The Hemingses of Monticello was written by Annette Gordon-Reed and published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2008.
This adult nonfiction historical narrative was reviewed extensively by The New Yorker, and I will never attempt to compete with the king of all magazines. Go here to read their review : http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/09/22/080922crbo_books_lepore
I read this book for pleasure. Having just visited Virginia and having visited Monticello in the past, I grabbed it when I saw it on the Just In library shelf. What really struck me about the book, is how much it explained to me what was going on in the recent Presidential campaign in regards to Obama’s race.
Jefferson thought that white blood mixed with African blood was what improved the African people. The white blood elevated the person to intelligence, good looks, creativity, etc. Now when I worked for the Obama campaign a few times, some of the people we canvassed talked about that they couldn’t vote for Senator Obama because he was black. Some of the campaign workers would answer, “But, he’s half-white.” And believe it or not, this seemed to settle them. A disturbing but true experience.
It is mostly an interesting read. Gordon-Reed does tend to repeat herself throughout, making and reiterating the same arguments so that I began to skim through many sections of the 662 page book. She had already convinced me the first time she’d made the argument so it became annoying for it to take up much space in another section and then sometimes, yet another section.
She also made a statement that bothers me still. She stated in regards to the Hemings’ women when Jefferson wasn’t at Monticello, “Indeed, it is hard to imagine just how these women occupied themselves during the many months when there were no daily household duties to perform.” My response to this is, “What? The other slaves took care of the Hemings’ enslaved women and they sat around eating bon bons, bored silly?” Life wasn’t easy then. Cooking took hours and hours. There were no grocery stores. What about all of the routine tasks that must have consumed them, tasks that we no longer have to do, just to have daily needs met? Making their own clothes, washing those clothes, taking care of their children, nursing their sick and injured family, gathering food, cooking that food, cleaning up the mess. My only conclusion is that Gordon-Reed has so removed herself from what it is like to be a housekeeper and stay-at-home mother, that she cannot see how demanding the role would be, especially 200 years ago. If you have children, how much “spare time” do you have, even when someone else cleans your house?
Not to mention the fact that most of the Hemingses could read and were intelligent and probably had a lot of things they wanted to do with their time when they weren’t burdened down with mundane mindless household chores.
This is why Virginia Woolf said every woman writer should have a room of her own and with a view. A room she can lock and keep the responsibilities of being the one who raises up the next generation at bay for a spare moment or two. Why is that women’s real work is the household chores and when relieved of that work, which I doubt the Hemingses really were, they can’t keep themselves occupied?
Jefferson didn’t free all of his slaves. He only freed a few. He was in terrible debt and so he treated most of them as property and they endured the horror of the auction after his death. Even the little children, being seperated from their parents. Children who had probably always thought they’d be kept with their parents since Jefferson kept most of the Hemingses together.