by Kimberly Brubaker Bradly
First sentence: “It was April and all Monticello was stirring, but in their cabin Mam had just put baby Maddy down to sleep and she told Beverly and Harriet to be still.”
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I’ll be up front from the start: some people will love this book. It will most likely win awards. But, it’s one of those books that’s full of Important Things, and that we Should Read because it will Enlighten us.
And I never got past that.
It’s basically the (admittedly very well-researched) story about slavery in the early 1800s. Told from the consecutive point of view of two of Sally Hemmings’ sons and one of their close friends, it shows what life was like for the slaves at Monticello. Granted, that’s a time period no one ever really talks about: slavery is for the Civil War, and we tend to brush over the fact that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. In fact the biggest thing I felt while reading this book was that it was a reminder (perhaps to those who Honor and Revere the Founding Fathers?) that Jefferson was anything but perfect. In fact, he was far from it. He spent money he didn’t have. He slept with one of his slaves (okay, not until after his wife died), and fathered children by them. And while he was better than many slave masters, he was still a slave owner.
Perhaps that was the problem I had, ultimately, with the book. (Not that I revere Jefferson.) It wasn’t really about the children, or even about Jefferson’s slaves, but more about Ideas — Freedom, Justice, Equality — and how they related to Jefferson. There was a lot of talk about Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence (“But it says all people are free,” Peter said. “Not all white people. Right?”), and the dichotomy between his writing that and the fact that he owned People.
It wasn’t a bad book, really. It was well-researched, it was a new take on an old subject. But I sat back and looked at it thinking, this is Interesting because it’s Supposed to Be. Not because it really was.