Monticello... who doesn't instantly think of Thomas Jefferson, his unique contribution to our nation and our heritage? He's a forefather and the father of Miss Martha and Miss Maria and then there was the other family, the family he had with his slave, Sally Hemmings. This is the story of that family. Told through the voices of three slaves, the children emerge with their hopes and their sense of identity. Each night Mama goes up to the big house after dark. Everyone knows it and everyone knows her children's father is Thomas Jefferson. But no one ever says that aloud and the children are forbidden to call him Papa. They seek his attention and his favor.
When Jefferson sends Beverly to learn to play the violin, he recognizes the bond that has been created and at home plays the songs Jefferson loves with the hope that up in the big house he is listening and perhaps even proud of what he hears. Some of the children are light in color and they hold a dream of becoming free and blending into the society away from their home and family.
These children have a very loving mother who will intercede with Thomas Jefferson when she needs to on their behalf. But she cannot stop him from coldly selling off their friends. The overseer is careful to give them special treatment and one of Jefferson's granddaughters even teachers one of her "uncles" to read in secret. An insightful look at the complexity of these children's world and the tragedies all around them.
"'Ah,' said Mama. 'Then why would this boy be a slave?'
"Beverly didn't know what Mama wanted them to say. He took Maddy's hand and rubbed it.
'He's kind of dark,' Beverly said. 'I mean, not really, but his skin is a little darker than mine.'
"'So, dark skin is what makes you a slave?' Mama said. 'Everyone with dark skin is a slave?'
"Well that wasn't right. 'No,' Beverly said. 'Jesse Scott's got dark skin, and he's not a slave.'
"'That's right,' Mama said. 'So here's a baby, and he's not a slave because he's a boy, or because of the color of his skin. Why do you say he's a slave?'
"'Because we just know,' Harriet said.
"'Pretend you don't know,' Mama said. 'Pretend you're walking down a road you've never been on before, so you don't know who lives on it, and you
see this little baby sitting on the side of the road. This boy, our Maddy, only you've never seen him before. How would you know whether or not he was
"Beverly looked at Mama. She waited. 'You wouldn't know,' he said, thinking it out.
'You couldn't ask the baby. He can't talk. So you wouldn't know until somebody else came along and told you.'
"'That's right!' Mama said. She swooped down and kissed Beverly, then took Maddy back on her knee and dressed him.
'You remember that, both of you. Nobody is a slave on their own. There is nothing inside either one ofyou, or anyone else -- Joe Fossett or Uncle John or me or anyone -- that
makes you a slave, that says you have to be one, that says you're different from somebody who isn't a slave. The difference is other people -- people who make laws and put other people into slavery and work to keep them there.'
"Mama's eyes blazed. 'But you aren't really slaves either,' she said. She rocked Maddy back and forth in her arms. 'You remember that. You'll never be sold and you'll never be beaten, and when you turn twenty-one you'll be free. Both of you, and Maddy too. That's a promise. A promise your father made me about all the children we might have. You'll be free.'
"'How can he promise that?' Beverly asked. 'He can't just make us free.'
"Mama paused, frowning. 'He can,' she said.
"'Because he's the president?'
"'Because he owns us,' Mama said. 'He owns all of Monticello. The buildings and the farms. The people too.'
"Harriet asked, 'You mean, because he's our daddy?'
"Mama shook her head. She said, 'Because he's Master Jefferson.'"
It's always exciting to find another great book to read and write about. But I treasure the times when, once in a blue moon, I find a book thatactually shifts the earth under my feet, one that I'll forever remember the first time I read it. This is one of those books. This is one of those rides.
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson has been a part of my consciousness for fifty years now. As soon as I'd truly mastered the art of reading, my grandfather Rex pulled out a massive edition of Jefferson's writings and instructed me to take notes on his autobiography.
Most importantly, I learned from working my way through that reading and note-taking experience that one needn't grow up to be just one thing. One could be President AND be a writer-philosopher AND be a farmer AND be an architect AND found a university. I feel that I've always put that lesson to good practical use.
As a young student I also learned, to my dismay, that the author of the Declaration of Independence was -- along with all of those other things he was -- a slave owner. What I wouldn't learn for many years to come was that after Jefferson's wife had died in childbirth, Jefferson began a decades-long relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and secretly fathered most of his long-lived children with her. (Sally Hemings was actually fathered, herself, by her former slave owner, Jefferson's father-in-law, thereby making her a half-sister to Jefferson's late wife.)
A decade ago, Shannon Lanier, one of Maddy's (James Madison Hemings') descendents, co-wrote a photo-filled account for young people about the contemporary coming together of Jefferson descendents from both sides of the color divide. Reading it helped me understand further the complexity of Thomas Jefferson.
JEFFERSON'S SONS, set almost entirely at Monticello, begins in 1805, when William Beverly (known as Beverly) is seven and his big sister Harriet is ten. Jefferson is President at this point in time. The book is told in three successive parts, from the points of view of Beverly, then of Maddy, and then of Peter Fossett (the beloved little brother of Maddy's childhood friend, the enslaved James Fossett).
"It wasn't even Master Jefferson who told them. It was the white overseer Mr. Bacon.
"Maddy was in the kitchen eating breakfast before work, along with James and Beverly and the usual crowd of people. When Mr. Bacon walked in all
conversation stopped. People stepped out of his way until he had a clear space around him.
"Mr. Bacon scanned the room. He cleared his throat. 'Edy,' he said, 'your boy's going to Edgehill.'
"The first boy Maddy thought of was baby Peter, but that didn't make sense. Then his heart froze. James.
"Miss Edith nodded slowly. 'He's going to do some work over there? For how long?' Edgehill was Miss Martha's husband's plantation three miles away.
"'He's going there,' Mr. Bacon said. 'For good. Get his things.'
"'I don't know what you mean.' Miss Edith spoke slowly and politely.
'James is apprenticed to the blacksmith shop. He hasn't got business at Edgehill.'
"Maddy felt a strange buzzing sensation in his head. He looked at James. James was staring at his mother.
"Mr. Bacon sounded annoyed. 'Don't be stupid, Edy. Mr. Randolph said he needed a boy. Mr. Jefferson sold him yours. Your James. It's not your
place to say what's anybody's business is. Get his things, or he'll go there without.'"
While I have read any number of extraordinary and award-winning books about enslaved characters, JEFFERSON'S SONS author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, through her perceptive situation- and scene-crafting, repeatedly made me realize how little I'd still really known of how it would feel to be a slave.
As a kid in school, I once saw a play in which there was a memorable depiction of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the exact same day: July Fourth, 1826 -- the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As JEFFERSON'S SONS progresses over the course of twenty-one years, I was increasingly conscious of the dates that head the
chapters. For it was clear that the apocalypse would strike when we reach that July Fourth of Jefferson's demise.
This is because, in so many ways, JEFFERSON'S SONS is a horror story. We know up front from the author that she has created this story within the architecture of history -- everything that happens in the story can exist alongside the historic record of what is known to have really happened with Jefferson, his offspring, and his other individual slaves.
This is a horror story because it is based upon ugly realities about Jefferson and the nation he played such a leading role in founding. One can only conclude that Thomas Jefferson first and foremost saw his slaves as property. He also saw no reason to budget his resources or to turn away the multitudes of uninvited guests who arrived -- day after day, year after year -- at Monticello. For the white people, it is one big party. But, for the slaves, the day of reckoning is obviously going to be on that July Fourth when the heavily-indebted Jefferson dies and the estate is going to have to
cover that little mountain of debts. You see it coming like the clock approaching midnight.
This is such a heartbreaking story. Occasionally, we encounter an instance when Jefferson seems to come to his senses, if for just a moment, to show a spark of recognition that one of these young people is actually his son. But, just a quickly, the clouds re-cover that light, the moment passes, and we can only imagine how much it hurts.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
It all makes me appreciate that my ancestors were peasants in Europe back then.
Recommended by: Richie Partington, Librarian, California, USA