Mama sighed, and picked her knitting up again before she went on. “I’ve had a comfortable life,” she said. “I don’t work very hard and I’m never hungry or cold. I have four children and I am treated well.
“But it’s not freedom. Sometimes it looks pretty close to freedom. Sometimes it feels okay. Then something happens like with James, and I’m reminded all over again that we live in a prison on this mountain. It’s a prison no matter how comfortable it may appear. You children will be free. That’s the joy of my life, the one thing I hold to. You will be free.”
Slavery is a difficult topic in children’s literature, and this year we have three prominent books–NEVER FORGOTTEN by Patricia McKissack, JEFFERSON’S SONS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and THE FREEDOM MAZE by Delia Sherman–that touch upon the subject. The latter two, being novels, probably make for the best head-to-head comparison, but since THE FREEDOM MAZE isn’t published yet, we’ll probably have to wait awhile to more fully investigate those comparisons. For now, then, let’s examine the merits of JEFFERSON’S SONS. I like some things about this book, dislike some things about this book, and am perplexed by some things about this book. Which makes it great for discussion!
Bradley does an admirable job of weaving the plot in and out of the historical record, the passage of time–the novel spans twenty two years–is also deftly handled, and there are some truly electrifying moments in story. But–as with virtually all of the longer books this year–I find the pacing to be slow and wish the same territory would have been covered in fewer pages. I know that plot alone does not drive this particular story, but still.
Given the wide span of years, it was a good decision to tell this story, in turn, through the eyes of three boys–Beverly, Maddy, and Peter–all of them slaves, and the former two Jefferson’s own sons by Sally Hemings. JEFFERSON’S SONS employs a limited third person narrator, and while the the transitions between each viewpoint character are seamless, I wish the narrator had been used to delve more deeply into the internal world of each character.
Moreover, there is a naivete that characterizes all three boys, a naivete that not only makes it hard to distinguish them at times, but may make some readers (myself included) feel like this characterization is too obviously being used as a tool for exposition. The larger cast of characters is vividly and efficiently drawn, but–and I’m not sure these are entirely fair expectations–Thomas Jefferson remains a cipher and the character of his relationship with Sally Hemings remains frustratingly vague.
While I have given the two previous elements decidedly mixed reviews, here is an area where I think JEFFERSON’S SONS merits discussion of most distinguished. The evocation of time and place is both ambitious and accomplished, showing us not only the daily operations of Monticello, but also the way society operated in the time. I’ve already mentioned that I think it relies too heavily on the naive characterization of the children to communicate the peculiar interface between black and white, slave and free. So, ambitious and accomplished–yes, but perfect–no.
JEFFERSON’S SONS uses modern language throughout. That, in and of itself, is a stylistic choice and a perfectly acceptable one. While most, if not many, historical novels use the prose and dialogue to impart the flavor of the period, I can think of successful examples that do not, namely Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy and Adele Geras’s Greek trilogy. In both instances, these authors use modern language to paint very vivid portraits of their characters and historical settings, but the key is consistency.
Where this becomes problematic–and I’m really not sure we have a way of ascertaining this–is if we feel Bradley has made this choice in an effort to whitewash the situation. I believe this is Doret’s concern in the comments to a previous post. As I mentioned at the outset, slavery is a difficult topic in children’s literature, and finding a treatment that respects children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations is fraught with perils and pitfalls.
To my mind, this is the other area where this novel merits consideration as most distinguished. It has the ability to radically redefine the world that children know, helping them to understand uncomfortable truths about our past that have shaped our society in the present, all the while reinforcing their most basic instincts about the natural rights of humankind. But here, as with setting, I feel that I have to qualify my praise somewhat.
Let me start with a couple of quotes. First, in a Horn Book interview from about ten years back, Roger Sutton and Virginia Euwer Wolff, discussing TRUE BELIEVER, agreed that there is an instructive and edifying quality to the teacher in the book.
Didacticism is something we watch for in books for young adults. But the problem is not the teaching, it’s when it’s not convincingly worked into the world of the novel.
I like Sutton’s distinction here, and I find it relevant to this book because I do not necessarily object to what Bradley is trying to teach young readers; I just don’t always think it’s been convincingly worked into the world of the novel. Here’s a second quote from a Riverbank Review interview with Brock Cole that further explores this distinction.
There’s a great deal of pressure in young people’s literature to produce works that are tailored to meet certain ends that have nothing to do with literature. They’re political ends; they have to do with cultural values. I don’t feel that literature for young people should shape the reader in any particular way, any more than it should for an adult. That’s propaganda. I don’t want to write that. If you’re skilled you can express any ideas you want, but I think it’s a mistake for a writer to try to shape people or teach them lessons. Writing means being concerned with particular incidents in particular people’s lives. I want to write books where no one can generalize , no one can tell me what the moral is. I don’t want to be preachy or educational, but I want my books to ring bells with readers.
I think of literature as a kind of meditation on the nature of life and what people confront. I want people to be thoughtful when they finish a book of mine. I want them to have expereinced, in some faint way, what other people have gone through in life. You can’t learn how to act from that experience, necessarily, but you can learn how to think.
So, for me, the big questions are these: Are the themes convincingly worked into the world of the novel? Is this literature or propaganda? I find that at various points in the novel I can answer both yes and no. I haven’t offered any textual evidence to support my positions above, but due to the length of this post–it’s grown and grown and then some–I wanted to get my response out, and then I can follow up with textual evidence in the next post. But I imagine I’ll work some of it into the comments below, too, depending on the direction the discussion takes.