book review: Jefferson’s Sons

+-+300743731_70Title: Jefferson’s Sons
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
date: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011
main characters: Maddy Heming, Beverly Heming, Peter Fossett
middle grade historical fiction

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the fictionalized story that begs the question, what does it mean when the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence is your father and also your slave master? It came across my path most recently when I saw it on one of the lists of recommended books about slavery. The inside flap states the books is told in three voices, but it’s not. It works to focus on three different characters, Maddy and Beverly who are both Jefferson’s sons and Peter, who is not. The book lacks an overarching storyline other than the fact that it’s about Jefferson’s sons.

While the author seemed to care about her characters, it felt that she held them at a distance, that she was uncertain about developing emotions or actions on their behalf. August Wilson wrote that “We have different aesthetics. Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions.” The story begins with Beverly pining for his father, seemingly wanting his approval. But, his mother keeps telling him that his father’s identity is a secret and he must not say anything. And again, he mentions ‘papa’ and again she tells him not to say anything. We learn that his mother is Sally Hemmings, the enslaved woman who had six children by Thomas Jefferson. Although everyone on the plantation seems to know this ‘secret’, there is very little public conversation about it.

Before continuing, I have to mention the difficultly I image in writing historical fiction, in wanting to reflect the sentiments of the time and of not overlaying contemporary thoughts and habits. How does one do that and still keep young adults interested in works of fiction? The following quote would be an example of revisioning the past.

“You ma’am me one more time, I won’t give you breakfast. Didn’t I tell you I got a brother your age?” (p. 249) ‘Don’t call me ma’am’ is a very modern sentiment. ‘Ma’m’ then was a title of respect, not age.

Jefferson promised Sally that her children would be free. Still the lighter skin children plan to run away and pass for white while Beverly, who is darker has to wait for his father to free him. Could Jefferson be trusted to do this? There is much of talk in the book about Maddy being too dark to pass for White and about his sibling’s plans to run away and be White. Don’t show, do!! There would have been so much more power in letting the characters play out the differential treatment in being light skin and dark skinned, the types of interactions they would and wouldn’t have had, but you have to have seen or felt this intraracial discrimination to write about it. One of the few places where this preferential treatment was enacted rather than talked about was in this scene where clothing is distributed.

“So, why not give real stockings to everybody?”

“It’s cheaper to weave fabric than to knit it.” Mama said.

“Woven stockings cost less.”

“How much less?”

“I don’t know,” Mama said. “It’s not my business.”

How many stockings is it?” Maddy persisted. “For how many people?”

Mama pursed her lips. “about thirty up here on the mountaintop,” she said. “Maybe a bit more. Say one hundred and sixty working on the farms. That would count the children.”

“And everybody gets three pairs of stockings, twice a year-“

Well, no,” Mama said. “Field hands get one pair, twice a year,”

“That’s not enough,” Maddy said. “They’d wear out.”

“Not if nobody can stand to wear them,” said Mama. “I can’t stay here taking with you, Maddy. I’ve got work to do.”

“But Mama—“ Maddy said.

Mama turned in the doorway. “Yes?”

The field hands do the important work. They grow the crops that make the money.”

“I know,” Mama said.

“So why don’t they get the good clothes and we get the ugly ones?”

Mama sighed. “You know the answer to that. Don’t ask questions when you already know the answer.” (p. 189)

On page 248, there’s a conversation between Maddy and his Uncle John about light skin, dark skin, and passing for White. Further down the page, Beverly asks his uncle “What happens if you don’t follow the rules?” These conversations are for the sake of White readers who need to have these things explained. Black children observe their neighbors and kinfolk and learn dangerous behavior. When your body is at stake, you learn quickly. Yet, the conversation develops.

Uncle John looked serious. “You mean the rules white people make for black people?” Beverly nodded. “Ill tell you,” Uncle John said. “A black man who doesn’t follow the rules is a dangerous man in a white person’s eyes. A black man who doesn’t follow the rules doesn’t live very long.”

And then, we have to bring Native Americans into this meandering story.

James was gentle too. “Here’s what we’ll do,” James said, “we’ll both get free, and we’ll travel together. We’ll go out west like Lewis and Clark. We’ll go see the Indians.” (p. 169)

We’ll go see the Indians. wtf?

For the most part, the history presented in Bradley’s books Is correct. She took leisure with a few details, or understood them different. I think the point of historical fiction is to create situations and dialog that weave together historic events. Bradley had much evidence available to her, Jefferson was a fastidious record keeping. Much can be told about life at Monticello from the record, but it sometimes requires inferring based upon raw data. Jefferson wasn’t much into journaling or letter writing, wasn’t one to clearly define his position on most things. I’d say that to me, he comes off as morally ambiguous. Being able to define his character would explain so much about life at Monticello and his connection to his sons but, this is difficult to do from what he has been left behind. We do know that Jefferson viewed slaves “as legitimate a subject of property as horses and cattle” and the slaves themselves were “incapable as children in taking care of themselves.” This from a man with 25 house slaves and over 100 field slaves.

What is so unusual about Monticello was that so many people who lived there were related. Betty Hemings was the concubine of Martha Heming’s father. Together, they had 7 children, one of whom was Sally, making Sally and Jefferson’s wife step-sisters. She had another 7 children by an enslaved black man. When Martha Hemings’ father passed away, Betty and her children became the Jefferson’s property. The darker children came one year and the mulattos came the next. The light skin slaves were the house slaves and darker slaves worked in the fields and factories owned by Jefferson. The color lines seems quite obvious to those forced into it and ripe for contention between these groups.

Jefferson employed overseers who were well known for their brutality and some historians worked to remove these details from Jefferson’s legacy. One of the factories that Jefferson maintained was the nail shop, where boys 10-16years old were employed on the plantation. The young ones who wouldn’t show up on icy mornings or for not keeping up were beaten. This fact was deleted from records from 1950-2005. Up to the age of 10, young children served as nurses. I don’t think they had as much free time as it appeared in the book.

It seems there was a time when Jefferson really believed Blacks should be free. To us, this is a no brainer, but to a man of his time the issue would have been as much an economic question as it was a moral one. (This is America, after all.) And, it was on the basis of economics that Jefferson realized America needed enslaved people. A significant contribution Jefferson made was to monetize enslavement. He was the first to realize that by owning enslaved people, he could profie 4% each year on the birth of a black child. He also pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery. Moving away from tobacco farming to wheat farming, Jefferson realized specialized tasks were necessary. Young boys were observed when they began working in the nails shop to see what jobs best suited them.

Monticello was certainly a complexity. We’ve got the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president of the United States sleeping with one of his slaves. He never frees her. Should this read as a loving relationship on her part? We’ve got enslaved Blacks and free Whites with the same bloodlines, Blacks who can pass for White and the whole question of enslavement and freedom here, where Thomas Jefferson lives. I’m surprised the musical wasn’t “Jefferson”.

The book falls short not only in being limited in appeal to White readers, but also in the message it delivers them about Blacks. Issues such as light skin/dark skin, which are HUGE among people of color, falls flat while freedom becomes equated with being White. The characters are provided no ability to overcome their situation except through escape. They have no dignity when they do little more than sew and produce nails for their master. These enslaved people were the ones who literally and figuratively built Monticello: they’re net worth was used to finance the construction and they were the ones who did everything from casting bricks and nails to molding the fine woodwork. But we only get the sense that, as Jefferson stated they are as “incapable as children in taking care of themselves.” I could go on. I could go through the scene where Beverly talks about the difference between Whites and Blacks or where Maddy and Peter discuss the Declaration of Independence, or the fact that there was enslavement in France until 1848, but I’m done. I’m not recommending this one. It doesn’t belong on anyone’s list of recommend readings about slavery enslavement.