- Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children
It is now accepted fact that, for much of his adult life, widower Thomas Jefferson had two families living side by side at Monticello—daughter Martha and her children, and enslaved mistress Sally Hemings and her children. While other fictional treatments of the Jefferson family saga focus on Sally herself, or on the dilemma of reconciling Jefferson the freedom champion with Jefferson the slaveholder, Bradley concentrates on what the Hemings children’s ambiguous social status may have meant in their everyday lives. Oldest son Beverly not only craves his father’s attention, he is so devoted to his mother and siblings that he abandons his first attempt at life as a free man and returns to the estate, waiting until sister Harriet is of age to join him in permanently revoking all connection with the family and passing as white. Middle son Maddy, the only child too dark to pass, has a far more conflicted approach to his renowned father, failing at currying his favor, then trying to shun him, but ultimately finding himself unable to shuck away filial ties, even in his heart. The children’s friend Peter, adored son of enslaved blacksmith Joe Fossett, simply enjoys the affection of family and Hemings friends until the Jefferson estate is dispersed to cover the deceased president’s debts and Peter is sold away. Rather than tidily dividing the novel into three sections, Bradley allows each featured character to step into the foreground just as he begins to question the complex relationships at Monticello, linger there until he’s begun to form his own opinions, and then give way to a new questioning voice. There’s inarguably some peril in assigning opinions, motivations, and emotions to historical figures about whom little is actually known, but Bradley’s sensitive and richly imagined vision pays respect to those who struggled for lives of stability and dignity, even as the whims and fortunes of the Jeffersons shifted beneath them.