When I was in high school I started reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved on my own. At the time, my mother said something about the book that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. She noted that the novel was remarkable because it showed that even the best possible slave situation was still an intolerable one. There is no “good” slaveholder, no matter how nice they might be, and no matter how well they treat their slaves. I understood a bit of this but I’ve never really encountered a book for kids that approaches this idea. I’d say that a good 95% of middle grade novels written for kids about slavery tend to show the same idea. The slaveholders are all evil except for one or two wives/daughters/granddaughters who teach our hero/heroine to read. Kids know that people who own slaves are bad so what’s the point in throwing in questionable morality? Yet Jefferson’s Sons couldn’t exist under those restrictions even if it wanted to. If a good chunk of the American population has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea that the Founding Fathers owned slaves then how much harder would it be for an author of children’s literature to bring the point up? Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t just tackle the issue of someone like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, though. She tackles the notion that he owned his own children as well. To pull this storyline off and to make it child appropriate, Bradley has a couple tricks up her sleeve. And danged if it doesn’t pay off in the end. To her I doff my cap.
Three residents of Monticello. Three boys with a connection to its owner, Thomas Jefferson. The first boy, Beverly, is the eldest son of Sally Hemings. He is also, as it happens, a son of Jefferson himself. Born with light-colored skin, Beverly comes to learn from his mother that when he turns twenty-one he is expected to leave Monticello, never see his family again, and go into the world as a white man. On this point he is conflicted (to say the least). After him comes Madison, or Maddy for short. Born with darker skin, Maddy will never be able to live as a white person like his siblings, and he fights with his anger at his father and at the system of slavery itself. Finally there is Peter, a young slave boy, who ends up suffering the most at the hands of Jefferson’s negligence. Through it all, these three boys help one another and attempt to come to terms with how a man can be considered great and yet participate in an institution of evil.
Before we get any further I’m going to cut short an objection to this book that a segment of adult gatekeepers are going to lob straight off. The idea that Thomas Jefferson sired children with Sally Hemings is widely but not universally accepted. Some people believe that her kids were fathered by a cousin of Jefferson’s. Bradley even incorporates this theory into her story, mentioning that Jefferson’s daughter Martha spread the rumor of the cousin to distract the curious from making connections she deemed inappropriate. Bradley also tackles the fact that the Hemings/Jefferson connection is something she and “almost everyone else who’s investigated the subject” believes. She offers up a plethora of research for this, including a “Report of the Monticello Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” found on no less than the Monticello website itself. None of this will prevent die-hard critics of the Jefferson/Hemings connection from objecting to this book and I would not be surprised to see it challenged in libraries and schools where anything but a pristine 100% view of Thomas Jefferson is deemed unacceptable. Still, I hope that this book will find its way into the hands of kids interested in this period of history. The past is never as black and white (forgive the pun) as we’d like it to be, after all.
Folks might also try to object to this book using the excuse that it’s entirely about illegitimate children, and how on earth is it possible to make such subject matter appropriate for kid readers? I don’t know how to answer you that partly because I don’t know how Bradley did it. But did it she did and that’s the truth. Jefferson’s Sons walks a thin thin line between truth and child-friendly matter. She has the unenviable task of making slavery out to be just as bad as it can be without scarring readers for life. To do so she uses a secret weapon: child perspectives. Why is this book’s narrative split between three different boys? Because that way Ms. Bradley can keep child readers restrained to the limited worldview of her characters. It’s amazing how much you can still say this way, though. For example, allusions to the danger female slaves faced at the hands of their owners is mentioned with sentences like “Some slave owner – some white man – might want Mama to have babies she didn’t want to have.” It’s truthful without downplaying the danger. Right at the start of the book Sally Hemings forces Beverly to watch a whipping, saying that he needs to know the horrors of slavery in the midst of his privileged state. The child reader is in much a similar situation, and Ms. Bradley’s the one keeping them from hiding their faces from the truth.
Difficult subject matter isn’t limited to such explicit horrors, of course. There’s also the strange notion of “passing”. Passing in children’s literature is almost never seen as a good thing. Recently the fictionalized novel of Zora Neal Hurston’s youth Zora and Me contained a character whose passing causes the death of her own brother. But books like Zora take place in a post-slavery era. For people during the height of slavery, say the late 18th century, passing was a matter of survival. That said, Bradley doesn’t paint it as all happy-go-lucky flowers and tweeting birdies. While Harriet (Jefferson’s daughter with Hemings) accepts that she will be white one day, Beverly is honestly torn. It’s not merely a question of what he is or is not, but also a question of never seeing his darker family members like his mother or brother Maddy. Bradley also throws in facts many readers might be unaware of, like that during this time a person with seven out of eight white great-grandparents was considered legally white. The very notion of race is turned on its head then. When kids today think of slaves they think of universally dark individuals. The idea that there was a wide range of skin tones might make them question assumptions they didn’t even know they had.
As for the characters, Ms. Bradley has done an excellent job of fleshing out folks who until now were just names on pages. Sally and Thomas are fascinating in and of themselves. In her case you’ve a character that willingly entered back into slavery of her own volition though she could have stayed in France after Jefferson’s time there. The only explanation for her return given is that she’d miss her family in America, and while maybe that is true it feel weak. Then there’s the question of whether or not she actually cares for Thomas. Bradley plays it several ways. When Beverly asks her this at the start she laughs off his question with an easy “Of course”. It isn’t that simple, though. This is the answer of an adult reassuring her child. We do see her care for Thomas in small ways, like tending his grave later. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that her loyalty lies not with him but with her children. She would do anything to guarantee their freedom and time and time again she drills that point home. Right up to the moment when she mentions that though all her kids will someday be freed, she never will. He’ll never let her go.
Which brings us to Thomas himself. The man who took to bed his dead wife’s half-sister (for so Sally was) he appears as a brilliant if absent man. At one point Sally tells a story about him that makes him more than just a two-dimensional historical figure. She says that growing up, Jefferson was friends with Sally’s brothers. When grown, he freed them, assuming they’d stay and things would stay the same. When, instead, they took off he grew bitter and never freed another slave during his lifetime. His sons wrestle with this duality and Bradley doesn’t make it easy on them either. Just when he seems like an amiable fellow he’ll turn around and sell Beverly’s best friend. Or he’ll spend so much money on guests and wine during his life that when he dies more than a hundred slaves will have to be sold. The book sort of sums all of this up best when General Lafayette comes to visit. Maddy explains to Peter about the Declaration of Independence and they examine the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Peter points out that in fact Lafayette and Jefferson then failed to free everyone. “I know,” says Maddy. “But they think they did.”
Late in the novel Maddy and Beverly discuss their father. Beverly mentions all the great things Jefferson did for the country. Then he asks, “does all that mean he’s a great person? White folks seem to think so. If you’re great enough in some areas, does it make up for the rest?” Maddy’s simple answer is “Would a great person sell someone else’s son?” Uncle John follows that up with the question of “Can a person be great and still participate in evil?” Big themes for a children’s book. No easy answers on hand either. Seems to me that adults have been struggling with these ideas for thousands of years. In terms of Jefferson, we’ve only recently let our kids debate that little issue. History is so much easier to deal with when you can pick and choose an individual’s actions. Jefferson’s actions will continue to be picked apart and debated for as long as we have a country. This book, I trust, will figure prominently in continuing to spark that debate. A great story. A killer ending. A must read.
On shelves September 15th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover:
I did a complete turnaround on this. At first I looked at it and tsked for a while. Typical, says I. Once again the black characters in a book are turned into silhouettes on the jacket. And while this is a problematic trend, after reading the book and looking again I decided that I wasn’t giving artist Stephanie Dalton Cowan and the folks at Dial enough credit. First off, that is indeed an image of Monticello in the background. You may take it for granted that an artist would put a real location on the cover of that location’s book, but I’ve seen many a title with nothing more than a flaming 20th century mansion on the jacket posing as something circa the Civil War. So there was that. Then there are the silhouettes themselves. Much of the book concentrates on the skin color of Jefferson’s offspring. Beverly is light-skinned while Maddy is darker. Beverly can pass for white. Maddy cannot. And since we haven’t any portraits of any of Jefferson’s children, it’s not as if Cowan could just presume to know what they looked like. Instead, she’s taken the three boys from the novel and put them strategically on the jacket. Below the roots of the tree (roots… ahhhh) and on top of a faded copy of the Declaration of Independence are the silhouettes of Beverly and Maddy. Beverly has wavy hair, making him appear white. Maddy has short hair, indicating that he’s blacker. And above them, looking past the tree at Monticello (below a flock of flying birds) is Peter. Shoot. Though it uses more brown than I’d like (brown covers are near impossible to get into the hands of children willingly) this cover is done exceedingly well.
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Misc: From the author’s website we can ascertain that the original title of this book was “Jefferson’s Boys”. I like the change better. “Boys” could be construed as derogatory, after all.