Jefferson’s Sons

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradly
ages: 10+
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.

8 thoughts on “Jefferson’s Sons

  1. This is a great way to say it “this is Interesting because it's Supposed to Be. Not because it really was.” Doesn't necessarily make it a bad book, but it is what it is! Thanks for the great review.

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  2. I appreciate your honesty in this review. Too many of us (myself included) shy away from saying anything negative about a book. Were I actually a reviewer, I would want to be honest. Not all books appeal to me.

    I also appreciate your honesty about your feelings about Jefferson and how they might have influenced your reception of the book. It's a tough inconsistency to reconcile: Jefferson himself saw it and couldn't fix it.

    I think I'm a little more sympathetic toward Jefferson despite his “do as I say, not as I do” ways. I think his ideas were strong even though his actions were weak.

    I'm inclined to check this book out. Thanks!

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  3. Hi Melissa,
    I have been compiling a list of books-to-be-read in time for Black History Month, and I was just thinking that given your review of the book, might as well read it for myself and see whether I'd have the same feeling as you did. Since I come from a different historical background altogether, this novel might appeal to me in varied levels and forms. Will let you know once I get around to reading it.

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  4. I read this weekend and that is exactly how I felt – like I was learning something, not reading a story. I liked the learning, I found it interesting in that way, but I never got locked into the story of it.

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