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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Jefferson’s Sons, Part 1

bradley2 Jeffersons Sons, Part 1Mama 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!

PLOT

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.

CHARACTER

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.

SETTING

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.

STYLE

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.

THEME

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.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Wendy says:

    “if we feel Bradley has made this choice in an effort to whitewash the situation”

    I don’t understand why you see this as a possibility.

    Regarding theme: I did think the teachable moments were convincingly worked in; I consider myself pretty sensitive to being Taught a Lesson, and it tends to make me irritated with a book even if I happen to agree with the worldview being espoused. Jefferson’s Sons made me think, rather than telling me WHAT to think. I appreciated that quality in a book when I was a kid, just as I do now.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, according to Betsy’s review of JEFFERSON’S SONS the original title was JEFFERSON’S BOYS. I’m not sure if that’s accurate; Betsy cites the author’s website, but for the life of me I cannot find it there. She likes the change because boys can be construed as derogatory. Of course, it is! But that’s what made it a brilliant title because Beverly and Maddy were his boys, in both senses of the word, that is, his sons *and* his slaves. Then, too, it’s a more accurate title because Peter is not his son. And, finally, I find the repetition of son as both the last syllable in Jefferson’s name and the second word in the title somewhat clumsy. So if decisions were made in an effort not to offend people–whether the title was changed or whether certain words to describe the slaves (n-word, colored, negro, black–as Doret mentioned) were used or not–I would consider that as whitewashing, but perhaps that is an inaccurate use of the term. Of course, I never came down in judgment on either side of the issue. It’s a tricky balancing act for an author with this kind of incendiary subject matter. On the one hand, you really want to appeal to the widest possible audience and not offend any segment thereof, but on the other hand, as the great Katherine Paterson stated–and I paraphrase–if you want to write a book that will offend no one then you end up writing a book that does not have the power to move anyone either.

  3. Wendy says:

    Okay, yes, I think “whitewashing” is an inaccurate term. The language in your original post implied that you thought it a possibility that Brubaker was purposely trying to make it seem like the lives of the slaves in the book was not as bad as it was. Certainly there’s nothing in the text to support this. “Whitewashing” is, especially in this context, a loaded term.

    My feeling, when I read it, was that perhaps Brubaker wanted to make sure the focus was not distracted by using language that children would know to be derogatory. In–for instance– Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, there is a good deal of discussion about the words people use for each other; it’s part of the focus of the book, and it makes sense there. I think it’s possible that if the Sally Hemings character used words that modern children only know as racial slurs to describe herself and her children, it would alter the message received by the young reader. I have no idea whether this was anything Brubaker or her editor thought about, but it was what came to my mind reading the book. And I don’t know that it would really be a concern. But I’ve seen that kind of distraction of focus in reader response to my own writing about sensitive issues.

    I didn’t have the problems you did with the title–I think “Jefferson’s Sons” has a nice echo in it, and I didn’t think it referred necessarily to the three narrators (it didn’t seem inaccurate to me). Even under the third narrator, it stays a book about Jefferson’s sons primarily. I wouldn’t have liked “Jefferson’s Boys” not because of the derogatory aspect–after all, they’re still children–but because that suggests to me a kindly/loving relationship that did not exist, at least in the world of the novel. “My son” is a biological fact. “My boy” is a term of affection.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    As I said, I do not necessarily have a problem with using modern language in a sensitive and inoffensive manner, especially in deference to a child audience. I think most authors consider these matters very carefully, and I am willing to respect their stylistic choices. It will be interesting to compare this one to THE FREEDOM MAZE which uses language more appropriate to the period. Does one work better than the other? We shall see. I still don’t agree with you on the title–not that it’s relevant to Newbery committee, anyway–but I’ve got the sequel all figured out: JEFFERSON’S SONS’ SONS!

  5. Doret says:

    I checked Jefferson’s Sons out again and I am hoping to finish it this time but don’t when I will get to it. I just started A Monster Calls and Belafonte’s biography is waiting for me at the library. I prefer Jefferson’s Son’s over Jefferson’s Boy, I can’t get passed the negative connotations of the word boy. With the stories subject I can’t interpret any other way, and this being a book for young readers doesn’t change that fact.

  6. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Hmm. Well the title was on there at some point. Looks like it got taken down. Doggone editable internet. Of course the advantage of “Boys” in the title would also be the fact that the story follows not just Jefferson’s kids but one other as well. The focus of the novel is not entirely offspring-based. But Doret brings up the problem with the title that necessitated the change, and I like the new one better.

    I too have a hard time with Let’s All Learn a Lesson books, by the way, and this one didn’t feel that way to me.

    Now please send me a copy of Jefferson’s Sons’ Sons pronto! Particularly if one of those sons’ sons is named Jeff.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I really don’t want to dwell on the title because (a) the title of the book is JEFFERSON’S SONS and (b) the Newbery committee does not consider the title of the book as one of its criteria, much less what the title might have been. So that was a quick end to that discussion.

    It’s interesting that people can read the same text, and some will find it didactic and some will not. What are those subtle triggers that cause us to view a particular text through that particular lens? Monica posted her thoughts on this book recently, and they are in line with my own. In fact, I had marked many of the same passages that she did.

    http://medinger.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/thoughts-on-newbery-historical-fiction-slavery-and-didacticism/

    I also found Wendy’s original goodreads review of the book. She wrote, in part, “it can be repetitive and didactic, and if the situations and characters feel realistic, the dialogue and their thoughts don’t always.” I’m wondering if you changed your mind since first reading it, Wendy. It seems like you disagreed when I said something similar above.

    Well, I also couldn’t find the extended bibliography that the author promised in the note. Was that on the website at some point? I did, however, find this interesting article about the writing of the book on the VCFA website.

    http://www.hungermtn.org/searching-for-truth-in-historys-shadows/

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple more things . . .

    1. As I was reading this book, the Penn State sex abuse scandal was blowing up, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels: the saintly Joe Paterno’s legacy being tarnished by inaction and complicity. I really don’t want to belabor the comparison beyond that single point, and I just wanted to note that the story has the ability to resonate today because even though slavery has been abolished, the abuse of power has not.

    2. I also thought of THE LAND by Mildred Taylor while reading this. Obviously, that book is set in the Deep South a bit later in the century and does not feature Jefferson, but it is the story of child born of a similar union and how he struggles to make his way in the world. Did anyone else make that connection?

  9. Wendy says:

    I haven’t changed my mind at all, Jonathan, but I guess the nuance (so to speak) is that while I sometimes found individual phrases or paragraphs didactic, I didn’t feel that way about the book overall. I don’t agree with all the language Monica pulls out as being too modern; I do agree with some of it. (Remember, when we originally started talking about this book, the two of us who were recommending it spoke of it in a context of the highs being perhaps enough to outweigh several imperfections.) As to Beverly’s ignorance, the key there is the privileged life Hemings’s children were living. Monticello slaves were more privileged than on other plantations, house slaves were more privileged than field slaves, and the Hemings family was the most privileged of all; and Sally’s point remains that privilege or no, none of them are free.

    And I did think Sally’s refined, almost scholarly way of speaking was meant to be a reflection of the time she spent in France and with Jefferson. It serves to set her apart from the others, and certainly she must have seemed set apart. What she says about how she was treated in France also corresponds with everything I’ve ever heard about people of African descent in 19th century Europe; of course there would have been racist people there, but the culture was simply different.

  10. Curious to learn more about the attitudes regarding race in France at the time I came across an article, “There are no Slaves in France”: A Re-Examination of Slave Laws in Eighteenth Century France” by Samuel L. Chatman in The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 85, No. 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 144-153

    He ends with this:
    The French maxim that “There are no slaves in France” was perpetuated by French
    pride in the “Freedom Principle.” In reality, however, slavery did exist in France.
    This is borne out in the numerous lawsuits for manumission. Obviously, if all the peo-
    ple were free no one would have needed to be freed. Also, the implementation of va-
    rious types of legislation regarding slavery also suggest the existence of slavery. Fi-
    nally, the language used by the philosophes and in the laws acknowledged the
    presence of slaves in the country. Perhaps, the maxim should have read “There are no
    slaves in France, except for African slaves.”

    I also came across the account of the Sarah Baartman (the so-called Hottentot Venus) who was exhibited in France in the early 19th century. Just to say I don’t think all was hunky-dory for blacks in France at the time by any means.

  11. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    I’m wholly intrigued by this discussion; it’s wonderful to see my book so carefully and thoughtfully considered. I was trying to decide whether it was rude for the author to chime in, but since I’ve been a fan of this blog for quite awhile I’ve decided to comment, rude or not. I hope you all won’t mind.

    In terms of the language–yes, it is modernized for modern readers. Please understand that nearly all books use modernized language to some degree. One of my early books, Weaver’s Daughter, is set in 1791. I did quite a bit of research about how people spoke in those days, as opposed to wrote, and I was very careful to use this “older” speech in my dialogue. And my editor had me take it all out–she said that to modern ears it made the supposedly cultured characters sound ignorant.

    Jefferson’s Sons of course is different still because it is about slavery. I won’t use the word nigger, no matter how historically accurate it may be. “African-American” is wholly modern and would sound out-of-place to everyone. “Negro” and “colored” are more historically accurate, but are also unfamiliar words to modern child readers. “Black,” which I mostly chose to use, is slightly less accurate (though sometimes seen in writing from that time) but seemed the best to me in terms of making this book accessible. I often, though not exclusively, use the words “enslaved people” in place of “slaves.” This is a more modern construction, but it’s also part of the point of my book, so I used it.

    France before the Revolution was hardly Nirvana, but I stand by my depiction. Annette Gordon-Reed’s fabulous book The Hemings of Monticello covers Sally’s time in France very well, and I recommend that as a place to go first if you’d like to read more.

    The original working title was indeed Jefferson’s Boys; we changed it exactly because of what Doret says, that he wouldn’t have been able to get past the negative connotations. I really don’t want to have people not pick the book up because of its title. I would guess it’s still in my blog somewhere as Jefferson’s Boys.

    I portray Beverly, just turned seven years old at the start of the book, as very innocent because I think he could have had that innocent of a childhood. Jefferson was mostly in Washington, and when he was at Monticello he didn’t attract the hordes of visiting strangers that were the hallmarks of his post-Presidential years. Beverly’s earliest years would have been confined to the small society of Mulberry Row, to his sister and mother, nothing else. Catholics give First Communion to 7-year-olds because that’s considered the age of reason, the age when you first start to question and understand. My portrayal may not work, but that’s why I did it.

    As for Peter–his written memoir talks of his early life at Monticello with a sort of glow. He remembers it happily, and says that until the day Jefferson died he never realized he was a slave. Those are his words, not mine.

    The bibliography should be up on the website; I’ll check and fix it today if it’s not.

    Thank you all so much for commenting and caring about my book. If you want to ask me any particular questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. Otherwise I’ll do my best to keep my mouth shut and let y’all carry on. Kim

  12. Wendy says:

    Oh, certainly, Monica, and I didn’t mean to imply that I thought it was. European art history (which is the lens through which I know most of my history), and especially French art history, is full of examples of exoticisation of women of color, which speaks to the accepted mindset at the time regarding both race and gender. My point, which was not well-made, is that the social atmosphere (especially, I’m given to understand, for a light woman as Sally Hemings is understood to be) would have been markedly different.

  13. Nina Lindsay says:

    I have to spend some time pulling together my notes on this, but on the whole my sense is that I was not convinced by any of the characters. Some more than others, but I always heard Bradley speaking through them, and orchestrating. A lot of what I found unconvincing had to do with that “modern tone” when talking about race…I do appreciate the bibliography and will be looking through some of the sources. I shared many of Doret’s concerns in the first 50 pages, and while I felt that the story gained momentum, I just never felt that sense of believing the story was “real” in the way you want hist fic to be.

  14. Martha P. says:

    Wow, I feel like a read a different book than most of you! I noted a few weaknesses as I read but for the most part was blown away by Jefferson’s Sons. The perspective was unique: children on the cusp between black and white, slave and nonslave. It allowed the author to explore all sorts of questions of truth, right and wrong, identity, race, and family in a (mostly) natural way. Like Octavian Nothing, it’s a book that questions preconceived assumptions and makes the reader see the past anew. I certainly did.

    I agree with Wendy that the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. I disagree with Jonathan on many points but specifically:

    It was easy to tell the three sections of the narrative apart. They each had very different points of view: Beverly knowing from a young age that he will have to leave everything he loves behind, forever, and longing for a relationship with his father; Maddy more interested in his friendship with James than in his father, dealing with his hatred of Jefferson after he sells James and also with the knowledge that of all his siblings he will NOT be able to pass into the white world (which as the author powerfully makes clear was virtually a different universe) because of his darker skin color; Peter with his completely different status on the Monticello plantation and the threat and then tragic eventuality of being sold upon Jefferson’s death.

    Also, Jefferson as a character is a “cipher” for a reason. If you think that’s a criticism, i think you’ve missed the point. We are seeing Jefferson through his enslaved and unacknowledged children’s eyes, and they hardly knew him. They weren’t allowed to. And yet a pretty clear picture of Jefferson emerges here: a great man who wasn’t a good man; who believed it was OK to own people but who considered himself a gentleman, a do-gooder, not a trader in human beings; “the Champion of Freedom…who owned slaves. Who lived his life so that at his death one hundred thirty people must be sold.”

    I acknowledge that some of the early dialogue seems manufactured, but by the end the characters and story had me totally engrossed. I’m with Betsy on Team Jefferson.

  15. Nina Lindsay says:

    I noted and appreciated the differences in pov between Beverly and Maddy…but when we switched to Peter I didn’t feel like I was getting a very different perspective, in fact I had a hard time telling them apart. I also felt like the development for each lacked some subtlety…there was the naive version and then the mature version, years later. The development was likely hindered by the need to be episodic and jump forward through time, so I understand that was a bit of a conundrum. But while I think this story serves a theme in an interesting way…it never, for me, served character well, and isn’t that one of the most important aspects of historical fiction? Otherwise, why not just use nonfiction?

    (I should give a nod to Kim, and say thanks for the contributions. I don’t see it as rude. To all authors out there, to those who post and those who lurk…you all have my respect, but understand that I’ll always separate your work from you in discussion, and I imagine that it must be hard to read this blog sometimes. I have a hard time mincing words. At least you will get the full gamut of reactions in the comments here!)

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Responding to various points . . .

    1. Kim, thanks so much for your comments and please do feel free to chime in, either to clarify or correct, but don’t feel obligated to do so. I know many authors feel uncomfortable when their books are being analyzed so closely in this fashion.

    2. I agree with Kim that most historical fiction writers merely sample the language of a given period–albeit to differing degrees–in order to suggest the setting. I have absolutely no problem with modern usage so long as it is consistent throughout, and I cited Crossley-Holland and Geras as example that pull this off. The latter even uses modern British slang in ancient Troy.

    3. In Monica’s examples, then, the usage didn’t bother me as much as a modern attitude and the lessons. I did feel both of those keenly, and yet when I look back over them, I can see what a fine line it is, especially if you are not primed to read the text through a particular lens.

    4. Martha, distinguishing the characters is only a minor quibble and you can probably convince me of my error there, but I still find them all naive to the point of distraction, to the point of feeling they are being used as tools. That’s the greater problem for me.

    5. Of course, Jefferson seems aloof to his children, and we see things through their eyes, but the picture of Jefferson that emerges here is entirely at odds with the historical Jefferson. The real Jefferson has no delusions about the evils of slavery; he just can’t bring himself to do anything about it. Anybody who has read substantially about Jefferson knows this. Read his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Read Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson’s failure isn’t an intellectual failure, not a failure to understand. It’s a failure of execution, a failure to do anything about it. I’m sure that makes him a bigger monster in some eyes, but it also makes him more intriguing. If you’re not going to use fiction to explore his character, then why not stick with nonfiction, and allow your already formidable strengths in setting and theme to really shine?

    6. I think this novel is both literature and propaganda. I do think that, in the words of Brock Cole, “it is tailored to meet certain ends that have nothing to do with literature. They’re political ends; they have to do with cultural values.” But I also think that “it is concerned with particular incidents in particular people’s lives . . . [readers will] experience, in some faint way, what other people have gone through in life.” It is a curious duality and I hope to explore it more fully here.

  17. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    Hi again–

    No worries that I’ll take any criticisms of my book or books to be assignations against my character. I, too, can separate the two. I did my best at the time I wrote Jefferson’s Sons, as I have with all of my books, and as I imagine nearly all authors do, but I’m a book critic myself and while I wish everyone would heap praise upon me, shower my paths with rose petals, and offer me record-breaking advances and movie deals, mostly this gift you are giving me–discussing one of my books at length, thoughtfully and with care for all aspects of the craft–is enough.

    Jonathon, I actually think Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery changed for the worse over time. The examples you cite all come from the pre-Revolutionary or Revolutionary period. I’m writing 30 years later. Jefferson was upset when he freed two of Sally’s brothers and they didn’t stay with him and continue to tend to his needs–it seems to have changed him, to have made him more determined to keep people under his control. Late in life–I’d have to search for the reference now, it’s a long time since I read this–a younger man came to him asking him to go on record as saying that slavery was wrong. Jefferson refused, in a cold manner the younger man couldn’t understand. He also made some statements later in life that made it clear he thought that black people were inferior to white ones.

    I didn’t want to use this book to explore Jefferson–I wanted to use it to explore his children. Jefferson has enough written about him already.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, absolutely! There is no question that Jefferson’s views on slavery and blacks worsened over the years, especially in the period you are writing about. But I still maintain that Jefferson’s failure is not an intellectual one. It’s not that he didn’t understand the arguments for the liberty of enslaved people. He certainly didn’t lack for understanding when he wrote the Declaration and he didn’t lack for it during this period. He just didn’t believe in his ideals as fervently and was content to let other people do the hard work of liberating them.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And as to your last sentence, Kim. Whether or not you wanted to explore the slaves rather than the master, it really is impossible to the separate the two. You can’t truly explore one side equation without exploring both sides, right?

  20. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    Hi, Jonathan. I actually disagree with your position that Jefferson was anti-slavery on any level. He professed a degree of equality, but he never seemed to believe it. This is the man who sold people regularly, who sold an 11 year old boy. This is the man who exhorted his overseers not to overwork female field workers with infants (after several infants died), because their true value to him was not the daily work they did, but the way they “increased his capital” by having babies every few years. You can’t believe yourself equal to something you regard as capital. You simply can’t.

    I also disagree that it’s impossible to write about Jefferson without writing about his slaves. It was done for years.

  21. Doret says:

    A man who has always been free and never been forced from his homeland would lack for understanding. Jefferson could not have walked a mile in his slaves shoes- because he was a landing owning White male and his slaves did not have shoes. I was going for Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle funny with the no shoes line. I hope someone else laughed because I know I did.

    But seriously getting back to Jefferson’s Sons, like I said in a earlier post, young readers are exposed to a lot of fiction and nonfiction that is set during and around slavery. So terms like negro and colored would not be foreign to the age group the book is targeting.

    When I was reading Jefferson’s Son, Beverly reminded me of Bruno from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, because both were young boys growing up in very difficult times but neither seemed to fully grasp what was going on.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Kim, you can’t disagree with my position that Jefferson was anti-slavery because, of course, I never held such a position, much less advocated for one. Aside from agreeing with you that his earlier sentiments on slavery and freedom were more admirable (and if I may strike the careless phrase “no delusions” from the record), I never made any claims to what Jefferson professed or believed, merely what he understood on an intellectual level based on his body of writing. I also said he failed to execute what he understood (a position which you seem to have co-opted).

    I also never said that it was impossible to write about Jefferson without writing about his slaves. What I did say, however, was that it was impossible to write about a master without also writing about his slaves. Do you know of a book that focuses on Jefferson’s role as slave master without also discussing his slaves? I don’t.

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Also, I want to add that I understand and appreciate that the slaves of Monticello and, more specifically, the Hemingses are the focus of your novel, but the importance of Jefferson cannot be understated either. After all, the book is titled JEFFERSON’S SONS, not SALLY’S SONS, or something else altogether.

    Moreover, a large part of the book’s allure comes from the fact that it forces many of us older readers to confront the fact that we do not know–that we weren’t taught as youngsters–the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Vicky Smith’s excellent editorial, “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson,” epitomizes this kind of response–

    http://www.kirkusreviews.com/blog/childrens/rethinking-thomas-jefferson/

    Part of our adult response to this book is that we want to do better by our children. We don’t want them to grow up with a romanticized view of Jefferson. And there is nothing wrong with that, but–referencing Brock Cole again–our view of Jefferson has nothing to do with literature and everything to do with political ends and cultural values. The literary value of this book comes not from Jefferson, but from those three boys, from the exploration of all sorts of questions of truth, right and wrong, identity, race, and family, as Martha put it so articulately.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Doret, I don’t know if it makes a difference one way or another, but the term “Negro” is actually introduced very late in the novel (p. 331). I, too, think that many readers will be familar with the terms “colored” and “Negro,” especially if they are in middle school (as I believe the main audience for this book will be).

  25. samuel says:

    It seems to me that Kimberly is very passionate about her views on Jefferson and slavery….that kind of passion is admirable–.but as far as the book goes I had difficulty believing the voices of the characters in the story were genuine and not merely a passageway for the opinions of the author……

  26. Doret,

    I really, really appreciate your comments as they jive with my own feelings about the book. I hadn’t thought of Bruno from BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS, but agree with you that Beverly does exhibit a similar hard-to-believe lack of awareness. Just as I felt Bruno couldn’t have been that oblivious of what was happening in his world (even before they move to the camp), so I feel Beverly couldn’t have either. There was a large community at Monticello and he had to be in and around it all the time, seeing and hearing and getting a sense of what life was like there and outside too.

    I also agree that our students are exposed to the sort of language you mentioned. Personally, I tend to have difficulty in general when coming across too much vernacular of our time in works set in the past; it tends to pulls me out of the story. (When my students are writing historical fiction about the Pilgrims I use an example from a book that will remain nameless, but there are some incredibly awkward efforts to make it period. My favorite is, “Thou know.” as in “You know.” So, yeah, the effort to make it period is there, but that expression “you know” is not 1620 to say the least:)

    I can understand not wanting to read the whole book, but I wish you would as you already have made some important points and think that you may have more to make once you finish (and there is always the issue of weighing in too much on books we haven’t read totally, as you know:). I too struggled with the first part of the book and put it down a number of times unfinished. I finally pushed myself to complete it once I knew we were going to discuss it here. I’ve reread it several times since then.

  27. Ed Spicer says:

    Everything that Martha says! AND I did not have a problem with the early voice of Beverly. I also do not think the voice and word selection criticism really takes into enough consideration the very unusual relationships that the boys had with both Sally and Jefferson. In the text it does describe the isolation of Beverly and crew had (they see field hands that they did not even know, Beverly and Maddy had never been off of Monticello, etc.). Just to reinforce something Martha says, for me the most powerful aspect of this book is how well it describes Jefferson–as a father to ALL of his boys through the lens of sons that much of the world does not know or does not acknowledge. For any of the books minor weaknesses, the degree of difficulty in this one makes it stand up and demand notice. I wish I had had a book like this when I was growing up.

  28. Elle Librarian says:

    I loved the book. I do not have the book with me to quote from just now. But, I didn’t have a problem with the children being naive. I know as a child, I grew up very sheltered. I grew up thinking most homes in America must have a father and a mother who both care about their children very much. I also had an opinion that most homes were middle-class. I grew up in a small town where virtually all the families and their lifestyles looked similar to mine. Like many children, I just assumed that my own situation was “normal”.

    Getting back to the book . . . Sally knows that her children are innocent. Up to this point, they have been sheltered. She has shielded them from reality. They assume that the other children are treated similiarly to how they are treated until their mother points out that the other children have rough socks vs. the more expensive socks that Jefferson provides for them, etc. The mother makes them watch beatings occur so they know the consequences slaves face if they run away, etc. She tells them how their futures will be different – how they will eventually be free. But, she knows that she never will be. She has to make sure they know how the “real world” for black people is before she sets them free in it when they turn 21.

    I could sense the author’s voice at times, but always thought that what some of you are claiming to be “didactic” really just made me consider different things. For example, I believe it was Madison (don’t have my book with me) who caught the mockingbird in an effort to please his father, but then was heartbroken when he realized that, because of him, the bird was, in effect, “enslaved”. While the author may have wanted this scene in particular to teach children a lesson, for me, it was secondary to entertainment. I could feel the boy’s pain and still think that what he realized was believeable and heart-wrenching.

  29. Doret says:

    Hey Monica I do plan on picking Jefferson’s Sons up again, and I wanted to say before that your French Maxim comment made me think of the theory paper I have to do about Kant’s unversal law maxim. To swing that way off comment back to this, I think its good to introduce readers to terms they are unfamiliar with because it helps streghthen their vocabulary. I returned to school this semester and on more than one occasion the seniors in their 20′s have not known the meaning of a particular word due to lack of exposure.

    It’s very nice to see the comments get back on track and I know this isn’t my place but I am going to do it anyway. Jonathan if there was a referee you would’ve recieved a penalty for unneccesary tone @10:08pm There is always a way to argue your point of view without giving the apperence intended or not of running down the person you disagree with. Shorting someone’s name assumes some sense of formality with the person. Jonathan you could go by Jon but since I don’t know I will used every consonant and vowel in your first name. On the upside my imaginary ref. might have only given you a warning for the name shortening, she’s not as strict as me,

    I was tempted to go ahead and just read page 331 but I am going to be good and start from about where I left off.

  30. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Doret, I am going to refer you to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley@7:31 where she signs off as “Kim.” Nina Lindsay@1:58 also addresses the author informally as “Kim.” I am happy to refer to people by whatever name they wish, just let me know which one to use. Thanks.

  31. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Looking back over these comments, I think I came across as more crabby than I had intended to in responding to both Kimberley and Doret. I apologize if I offended anyone, and most of all, I hope I didn’t squelch the discussion.

  32. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    I’m late chiming in, but I thought this book was wonderful. There is so, so much to discuss with students here. I have to agree with Martha, Ed, & Elle. I never once had trouble with the naivety of the boys’ voices, or keeping them separate. They were the privileged ones on Mulberry Row, and their mother had worked to keep them privileged. Each boy’s voice was clear and distinct in my mind: Beverly, the innocent who understands his limitations as a slave but still aches over the fact that his father will never treat him as a son; Maddy, who comes to understand that he will never be truly “free” to live life as he wishes, and hates his father for selling his best friend; Peter, who is happy because he has loving family, no really hard work but enough to be helpful, and a beautiful mountain on which to run and fish and play. Each of these boys has a horrific moment of awakening, a point where his accepted, “this is just the way life is,” reality is shattered by moments of cruelty. Every human has a moment like this. For some it comes later in life, for some, shockingly early.

    Perhaps I read it with too much of Peter’s naivety all the way through, because I never found it didactic. It made me think but did not preach to me. It forced me to contemplate the question asked near the end of the book, “Can a person be great and still participate in evil?” I applaud Ms. Brubaker for this work. Our children know about slavery. They have heard of the horrible things that happened to slaves. But they still do not comprehend it. Neither do I. It still absolutely boggles my mind that people ever thought it was acceptable to own, buy, sell, enslave other human beings. This book gave me a new angle from which to view it. While I do not think it’s the kind of book many students will choose to read on their own, I do think it would be an asset in upper elementary and middle school social studies units.

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