In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jefferson's Sons

Dear Annie,

One of the things I've been doing here in Maine is catching up on the new kids' books coming out in the fall.  I sometimes order books without reading them, based on the author, or the subject, or the opinion of a sales rep whom I trust.  Then I try to catch up.  I bring books with me to Maine which I suspect will be good reads -- and I picked up a quite good one this week.

Jefferson's Sons
, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, imagines life at Monticello for Thomas Jefferson's slave family from 1805, when he was still president, to the 1827 slave auction after his death.  Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, who was Jefferson's wife's half-sister, are pretty credibly believed to have had four children who lived to adulthood.  All four eventually became free, and three ended up identifying as white.  The book portrays Hemings, who first became pregnant by Jefferson when she was a teenager, as caring for Jefferson, but also as having made deals with him that her children would be well treated as slaves and freed when they reached 21.  Bradley's Hemings raises her children -- who had seven white great-grandparents -- to expect that they will eventually "pass" as white.  One of the strongest characters in the book is Maddy (short for James Madison), who realizes fairly young that his darker skin won't give him the option his siblings take.

This book is aimed at eight to 12  year-olds. It portrays Jefferson as a distant and flawed man who won't apply his beliefs about equality to the slave population.  The concept of rape is barely in the book -- a passing reference to Sally using her influence to keep her daughter safe.  The most brutal moment is a flogging of an escaped slave, which Sally makes her children watch.  The hardest emotional moments are when Maddy's close friend James is sold away when he's 11 years old. Maddy is furious.

  After a few days Harriet [Maddy's sister] took Maddy aside.  She walked him past the garden and sat him down on an old log on the hill.  "What," she said, "do you think slavery is?"
  Maddy glared at her.  Harriet took no notice.
  "I'll tell you," she said.  "It's not having any say.  Any choice.  Not about you, not about your family, not about anything.  Forget having to work for someone.  Forget not being paid.  It's the say.  The not having any say."
  "I know that," Maddy said.
  "You act like you don't. You act like you're just now discovering what everyone else understood all along."
  Maddy searched for the words to explain.  "I thought Master Jefferson cared about Miss Edith and Joe [James' parents]," he said.  "He liked James for bringing him that bird.  I thought he wouldn't sell people he liked, not if they worked hard."
  Harriet shook her head.  "You thought wrong."
This book is about people who have no say.  It's about injustice, not about violence and brutality.
It's trying to explain the hypocrisy of one of our founding fathers to people younger than Maddy.  I don't know enough about the historical facts, but it may be pretty accurate about the Hemings children's experience.  If this were one's introduction to slavery, it would be too mild.  But as a picture of one family's experience, and a way to view Jefferson, it's a very good read.  The kind of book a teacher, or a parent, or a book group can think over for quite a while.



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