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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Jefferson’s Sons, Part 3

bradley3 Jeffersons Sons, Part 3“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” read Maddy, “that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“It does say all people,” Peter said.

Maddy sighed.  “Yes.  It does.”

What does the first part mean?  We hold these truths to be self-evident?”

Maddy paused.  “That means–that means, this is so true everybody ought to know it.  It’s plain truth.  It’s obvious.”

“But people don’t know it,” Peter argued.

“I didn’t read it to tell you that,” Maddy said.  “I read it so you’d understand what those two old men were crying about.  They believed this a long time ago, when almost nobody else did, and Master Jefferson wrote it down, and they made a whole country around it.  And now they’re so old they’re almost dead, and they’re crying for what they did a long time ago.”

“But they didn’t really do it,” Peter said.

Maddy shook his head.  “I know,” he said.  “But they think they did.”

Several people have noted that this book’s strengths are so strong that they outweigh its weaknesses.  While I agree that the strengths are considerable, I remain unconvinced that they compensate for the weaknesses, at least enough to merit Newbery recognition.  (But, of course, I believe it deserves a place at the table, otherwise we wouldn’t be spending a third post on it.)  I promised some textual analysis to illustrate my points, but since Nina has already done a bit of this, and since I want to avoid, inasmuch as possible, the appearance of piling on, I’ve chosen to examine one larger piece of text rather than many smaller ones.  I’ve chosen one of the most powerful scenes in the book: the reunion of Jefferson and Lafayette at Monticello nearly fifty years after the American Revolution–and the subsequent conversation between Maddy and Peter.  I’ve only quoted the emotional punch at the end of this scene, but I encourage you to read it in its entirety on pages 327-330.

MODERN PEOPLE IN HISTORICAL DRESS, PART 1

First of all, the excerpt quoted above is actually the second time Maddy reads these words.  The first time he reads them as they are actually written, “all men are created equal,” but above he reads, “all people are created equal,” which is not only incorrect, but seems tailored to a modern sensibility, especially seeing as how the word people encompasses both women and blacks.  It’s a noble sentiment–a sentiment I happen to agree with–but a modern one nevertheless.  I’m not sure how to read the misquotation, but it’s subtle, deliberate, and it gets under my skin for some reason.  Maybe I just think the audience doesn’t need to be catered to quite so much, that they have the intellectual tools to understand that “men” can and does encompass “people.”  Maybe I would just like more acknowledgement in the text of Maddy’s subtle change.  While none of the modern language in this book is problematic for me (historical people in modern dress, in a manner of speaking), I do find that there is oftentimes a modern tone and sensibility that undermines the other literary elements, and this is simply one more manifestation of it, not damning in its own right, but more problematic as part of a larger pattern.

PRESENTATION OF INFORMATION: ACCURACY AND CLARITY

Since Bradley has already stated on this blog that her intention was not to write about Jefferson, but rather his slaves, this next section is sure to be frustrating for some people.  It may give some of you apoplectic fits.  If you suspect you might be one of these people (yes, Wendy, you!), you may just want to skip down to the next section for my final point.

My biggest problem is the final line in this chapter–”But they think they did.”–because I just don’t believe it rings true at all.  Jefferson and Lafayette were under no illusion that “they had made a whole country around [The Declaration of Independence],” they were under no illusion that those bright shining ideals had been absorbed into the Constitution, what with the three-fifths compromise allowing Southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation.  Is there an accidental–or deliberate–obfuscation of the Declaration (which declared the colonies independent from Britain) and the Constitution (which bound them together under a single federal government)?  Or does the distinction just get lost in an oversimplification?

Jefferson has a poor track record on slavery, contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst.  Lafayette, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.  Many of us read Russell Freedman’s LAFAYETTE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION last year.  He wrote the Declaration on the Rights of Man (kind of like the French equivalent of our Declaration of Independence), but I couldn’t remember if Freedman covered Lafayette’s views on slavery.  I think he probably did, but not having that book on hand, I did a quick Google search, and found more information than I could have wished for.

From Teaching American History in Maryland: George Washington and the Paradox of Slavery (Maryland State Archives)–

“I would have never drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.”  [Lafayette] was appalled that slaves continued to be transported after the Revolution aboard ships flying the American flag.

From Lafayette and Slavery (Lafayette College), comes some correspondence between Lafayette and Jefferson about the Missouri Compromise of 1820, just several years before their reunion at Monticello.  Lafayette here repudiates Jefferson’s rationale for allowing slavery to spread into new territory.

Are you sure, my dear friend, that extending the principle of slavery to the new raised states is a method to facilitate the means of getting rid of it?  I would have thought that by spreading the prejudices, habits, and calculations of planters over a larger surface you rather increase the difficulties of final liberation.  Was it not for that deplorable circumstance of Negro slavery in the Southern States not a word could be objected, when we present American doctrines and constitutions as an example to old Europe.

From Lafayette’s Visit to Monticello (Monticello.org), we have an account of Lafayette’s visit.  Israel Gillette (also called Israel Jefferson–he took the surname after his death), who I believe is described as Miss Fanny’s brother in the novel, relates that he overheard the following conversation.

The conversation turned upon the condition of the colored people–the slaves. Lafayette spoke indifferently; sometimes I could scarcely understand him. But on this occasion my ears were eagerly taking in every sound that proceeded from the venerable patriot’s mouth.

Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle-the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were. educated, and so on. Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived. To the latter proposition of Gen. Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented. He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation. This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.

While Lafayette comes off much more favorably than the backsliding Jefferson, neither of them labored under the illusion that the ideals of Declaration had been absorbed into the Constitution or society at large.  I don’t want to belabor that point, but my next questions are these: Is the information presented about Jefferson and Lafayette in this scene accurate?  Is it presented with clarity?  And now for the most important question:  Is it important?  It is such a small part of the novel–miniscule, really–and it falls largely outside the scope of the story.  But then, too, it’s an important part of this scene, and this scene is an important part of the book.  I leave it for you to debate this point in the comments.

Now the people who were advised against reading this section, but are stubbornly doing so anyway (yes, Wendy, you!), would be very quick to point out that since our viewpoint characters in this scene, Maddy and Peter, would not have any way of knowing the very things I just complained about (save for the last quote which could have been passed by word of mouth to all the slaves at Monticello) it mitigates or absolves the book from the responsibility of accuracy and clarity in this regard.  But does it?

MODERN PEOPLE IN HISTORICAL DRESS, PART 2

The reunion of Jefferson and Lafayette at Monticello apparently touched all of those who witnessed it.  “Even the slaves wept,” Peter noted in his recollection of the event.  In the novel, however, Peter is not only uncomfortable with  everybody’s outward display of emotion, but he is somewhat bewildered by it.  “I don’t understand this at all,” he confides to Maddy, and then Maddy takes him to read the Declaration.  I do not mean to suggest that Bradley is not faithful to the historical record.  She is faithful; it’s a matter of interpretation, as she notes in the afterword.  “Different people might draw on the same facts I did and come up with a different story.  That’s okay.”

What I do question, however, is that not only are our two young, naive viewpoint characters strangely unaffected by the prevailing sentiment of the day, but their response actually runs directly opposite to it.  Their discussion of the Declaration, simultaneously naive and cynical, closes the scene with an ironic twist that delivers an emotional punch to the gut–reminiscent of the style of OCTAVIAN NOTHING.  It inflames the passions as well as the intellect and leaves the reader with a fundamentally altered view of the founding principles of America.  The point of this scene is that Peter–and by extension the reader–in a very visceral way comes to a new historical understanding.  If it’s not done properly, however, if it’s not worked convincingly into the world of the novel, then it can make readers feel like they are being shaped, that the book is tailored to political ends and cultural values.

Now the way that Maddy and Peter behave in this scene is fairly consistent with the way that they behave throughout the novel (although some of us might say they consistently behave like mouthpieces).  However, because their response differs so greatly from the adults, both slave and free, and then, too, because it is Maddy’s conversation after the reunion that is catalyst for this revelation rather than Miss Sally’s conversation before his arrival, I just cannot help but feel that I am not only listening to mouthpieces, but they are telling me decidedly modern sentiments. It’s the means I take issue with here not the end.  I appreciate everything Bradley has done here on a political level– I just don’t think this message logically flows from this event; it’s a non sequitur.

IS THE GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?

One of the things that is fascinating about this discussion is that it’s largely about perception.  If the book didn’t have recognizable strengths in most, if not all, of the literary elements then we wouldn’t be talking about it so much.   Whereas Nina took a single criticism–unconvincing characterization–and showed multiple instances of it, I have taken single scene to task with multiple criticisms.  I like many things about this book, but what I dislike about the book I really, really dislike.  My intention with this post is not to pile on, but rather to get closer to this question: How can we read the same text and come away with such fundamentally different readings?



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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. Brandy says:

    I haven’t yet read posts 1 and 2 on this because they posted before I read the book. I read it over Thanksgiving though and I have to say THIS was exactly my issue with it.

    Jonathan, you said, “While none of the modern language in this book is problematic for me (historical people in modern dress, in a manner of speaking), I do find that there is oftentimes a modern tone and sensibility that undermines the other literary elements…”
    and
    “…I just cannot help but feel that I am not only listening to mouthpieces, but they are telling me decidedly modern sentiments. It’s the means I take issue with here not the end.”

    Next to gross inaccuracies, this is the element I find in historical fiction that annoys me the most. And you are right, this is only one instance of it. I felt that Sally’s entire character was a vehicle for this and it frustrated me to the point that I was largely unable to enjoy the novel at all. Which puts me firmly in the glass is half empty camp I guess. It caused huffing and puffing and eye rolling to the point that my husband threatened to take the book away from me.

  2. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    Hey Jonathon–

    I’m flattered, three posts! Thanks for thinking so hard about Jefferson’s Sons. I do want to point out that the conversation between Lafayette and Jefferson that Israel Gilette/Jefferson recounts occured after Lafayette’s arrival at Monticello–ie, after the scene in my book you’re discussing. Peter and Maddy could not have been aware of it, because it hadn’t happened yet.

    Also, remember that Peter’s memoirs were written when he was an old man. At that point he would have understood why the spectators wept at Jefferson and Layafette’s emotional reunion. As a child I think he might well have been confused and upset by the adult display of emotion. I don’t think this is a modern sensibility; I think it’s the difference between seeing things through the eyes of a child and those of an adult.

    My aim was at all times in this book to stick to the limited points of view of my narrative characters. I don’t want them to know at age 9 what they shouldn’t have been able to learn until they were 12, or 15, or 30. It was one of the things that made writing this book so interesting.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, you are right. Lafayette stayed for several weeks and this conversation happened later in the visit–but still within the time frame of the novel. Now I do acknowledge here (as others have previously) the degree of difficulty in using not only an entire cast of historical characters but also a detailed timeline, and I certainly do not feel you are obligated to include every little thing that I can google up–it is the prerogative of an author to shape her story the way that she sees fit–but when all is said and done my question remains: Does this book have an obligation to present clear and accurate information about Jefferson and Lafayette despite the fact that this information may be tangential?

    Your point about Peter’s memoir is a fair one, but it was also brought up previously to challenge Peter’s statement that he never felt like a slave, a statement that almost certainly took into account his later life experience (i.e. having a second owner to compare and contrast with Jefferson, meeting various ex-slaves and comparing his own experience to theirs).

  4. Sara Ralph says:

    I’m excited to read this book! Even though your and Nina’s arguments against its Newbery potential, I love historical fiction and am interested in this time period in particular. Since my public library hasn’t seen fit to order it, I’ve put in on my Amazon wish list, and if no one purchases it for me for Christmas, I will be buying it for myself.

    Having not read the book, I have no textual evidence to back up this theory, but I wonder if Bradley intended to show assumptions people like Maddie may have made about Jefferson’s perspective on the Declaration and how its ideals were present (or not) in the new country rather than what he actually thought?

  5. Leslie says:

    I am just now starting to read “Heavy Medal” again (it having suddenly dawned on me that the discussion would be active again) and am of necessity skimming the posts.

    Perhaps I missed it, but nowhere do I see any mention of the fact that there is still considerable dispute about whether Thomas Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally Hemings’ children. A book published in September of this year provides the opinions of 13 scholars on the matter. “With the exception of one member, whose views are set forth both below and in his more detailed appended dissent, our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.”
    http://www.tjheritage.org/newscomfiles/front_matter_and_report.pdf

    I am not saying that this commission’s report is the last word, but I am saying that to act as if it is established fact that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children is wrong.

  6. Wendy says:

    “Wrong” in what way, Leslie? It certainly isn’t wrong for an author to take a well-founded position; nor is it wrong for readers to agree with the position. It WOULD be wrong if other commenters reacted to you with scorn for raising doubts, but that has nothing to do with the book.

  7. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    The “new” report by the 13 scholars does not contain any new information; it’s a reprinting (slightly repackaged) of a much older document. People can of course disagree, but I think it’s important to realize that there is no new information about Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’ children. This report is also the single one which continues to dispute Jefferson’s paternity in the face of nearly overwhelming evidence.

    For further information on this topic, I’d suggest reading either the document posted online at Monticello.org, which contains the report by the Monticello historians (The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Foundation has no connection to Monticello) or Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer-Prize winning nonfiction history, “The Hemingses of Monticello.”

    If there was still serious doubt, we could dig Jefferson up and perform DNA tests which would be conclusive to prove Eston and Madison’s paternity. Since Beverly and Harriet disappeared into history and their descendants are unkown, their paternity will never be conclusively proven. However, at no time in Sally Heming’s life or later were her children said to be fathered by different men.

  8. Leslie says:

    I reread my post, and nowhere do I see the word “new,” so I’m not sure why you chose to start your post with it. Whether the report is old or new is irrelevant, as is whether it is the “single one which continues to dispute Jefferson’s paternity.” If the scholars’ arguments are so weak, presumably in the years since the “much older document” appeared the arguments would have been discredited and disproven and disavowed, which I gather is not the case. Truth is not a matter of majority rule, it’s a matter of – truth.

    If you were to dig up Jefferson, perform DNA tests, and prove conclusively that he fathered at least two of Sally Hemings’ children, then of course the matter would be settled. Until then, it seems only fair that there should be some acknowledgment that it is not settled. I haven’t read the book – a copy is on its way to my library (though not of my ordering) – so for all I know there is such an acknowledgment in there. If so, nobody mentioned it, as I noted in my post.

    Wendy – what is wrong is stating as proven fact something that is not proven, but merely an interpretation of the evidence, with no acknowledgment that it isn’t proven; the more so in a children’s book. If after all it is true, well and good; there would be no harm in having pointed out the possibility that it was a misinterpretation of the evidence. If it is not true it is base calumny, and its subject and readers deserve some indication that it is false.

  9. Leslie says:

    *that it might be false, not that it is false. Sorry, my fingers got away from me.

  10. Wendy says:

    The claims made there HAVE been disavowed by almost everyone who studies the situation, and the paternity of Hemings’s children is generally accepted as fact. I honestly can’t remember whether Baker specifically addresses that this is slightly controversial to some people, but I wouldn’t care if she hadn’t. So many things we learn about history are not based in proven fact; actually, this is a well-researched point compared to many. There’s a lot of DNA that would need to be demanded to “prove” every questionable ancestry that is accepted as fact.

  11. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    I got “new” from “published in September of this year.”

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in the world of the novel, but inasmuch as we still squabble about the veracity of it–and probably always will–I can’t help but remember that Brock Cole quote: “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.”

    Whether Jefferson and Hemings had this particular relationship is not a literary matter. The literary matter–”I want them to have experienced, in some faint way, what other people have gone through in life”–comes from the exploration of how the children of such a union would have thought and felt and acted. This situation–a father owning his son–played itself out time and again in the antebellum South, so even if some new evidence moved the debate in an entirely different direction, a treatment that focused on the experience of the children rather than their paternity would continue to resonate.

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