Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello

Wow. This book was very challenging for me. I love to read, and I love to learn new things, but this was a struggle. I still have not gotten through this book. Even taking breaks in it is not helping. I find the author a challenge simply because of the point mentioned already about there being no real story flow. Also, I felt like there was a lot of conjecture, not factual, but just like other books on the topic, due to lack of information, the author just put her feelings in.
It was interesting to me to have the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson and his (as mentioned in an earlier review) "all men should be created equal" while he owned and "bred" slaves. He didn't "have love children" or outwardly care for Sally, in fact he never lets her free/have her freedom from being a slave. He breeds with her for his own pleasure and keeps her tied to him.
I am really looking forward to the next book, as this was/is a book that leaves me feeling negative and sad. I don't always need a happy ending, but it feels like the feeling of this book is very weighted... I'm glad we read (I tried to read) it, as it is always good to broaden horizons, but I'm happy to move on.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Reactions to the Hemingses of Monticello

First, I need to start by saying that I haven't quite finished The Hemingses of Monticello. When you take out the acknowledgments and endnotes, I'm just about half-way through. Last night, I caught up with Thomas, James, and Sally in Paris ...

There were two things that made this a very intriguing selection for me ....
  • I live in the shadow of Monticello mountain (I see it from the Giant parking lot whenever I go grocery shopping), and
  • I love history.
The Hemingses of Monticello is most definitely filled with history. Lots of well-cited history. Annette Gordon-Reed has done her homework and then some. This is a book filled with facts and a well-crafted chronology . The author has put the details together so meticulously that we see less about the individuals and more about their placement in time. She seems so intent on getting it "right" that feelings are described as a set of possibilities or explanations.

What the book lacks, as Jill so eloquently pointed out, is a story. Reading this post over at I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) this morning also clarified that. Last week I jumped ahead and read the Epilogue. It is not because I don't want to finish the book - I do (and I will). I jumped ahead because I was looking for some affirmation that after all of the detail, Gordon-Reed would tell us "the rest of the story."

Yes, she lets us know how the family evolved. But she never strays from her original style. Unfortunately, this isn't a book where you talk about the characters as we did with The Thirteenth Tale. I really thought the book would draw out those types of discussions: why was James so willing to take risks traveling from Richmond to Charlottesville alone? did the Hemingses suffer because of Jefferson's waivering philosophy toward slavery? did he behave differently in front of Wayles and others than he did when it was just "the family"? etc.

In putting together this book, Gordon-Reed relied heavily (as historians do) on primary sources. Her sources included lots of correspondence (largely the landowners) and oral history (family stories passed down by the Hemingses). She admits throughout that there are gaps in the documentation, such as John Wayles' family tree and who attended to Martha Jefferson in her final days. Frankly, I was disappointed in how she presented the information she did find. The discussion of emotional issues (at least to this point) are recitations of fact, and the language doesn't convey the feelings themselves. Sometimes, the explanation is "given the culture of the 18th century, So-and-so might have felt X ..."

Gordon-Reed does an exceptional job in presenting a balanced look at Thomas Jefferson. He is at times a very likeable person who seems to be a truly Renaissance man. But there are aspects to his personality (beyond just ego) and events where he shows himself to be a self-righteous, condescending landowner, no different than his neighbors. I have always thought that he was enlightened, purposeful, and a curious learner. I never really saw him in the context of his married life. Now, because of Gordon-Reed's presentation, I would like to find other broad histories of Jefferson and learn more.

This is a book that is better read in small pieces, not only because the author packs each chapter with so much information, but because there is a lot to absorb. Each night, I close the book wondering about the story. I have the facts, I can set the scene, but I still have questions. I need time to process what the book doesn't.

The Hemingses of Monticello is a book for Jeffersonian historians, not the casual reader. That's unfortunate, because I think there is a lot to be gained in learning more about the stories of our ancestors. This is a compelling story still waiting to be told.

Reactions to The Hemingses of Monticello

Wow. I don't quite know how to neatly wrap up my thoughts and feelings about this book into a short blog post, but I'll try.

First off, The Hemingses of Monticello was a difficult read, both literally and emotionally. I normally read books rather quickly, but I found myself having to slow down considerably to wade through all of the details.

I think Annette Gordon-Reed is an exceptional historian, and it's clear that she's passionate about the subject matter of book. However, I think she is a rather weak storyteller. I do believe that the best nonfiction is able to tell a compelling, structured story, and there places in the book that were repetitive and disorganized.

I admit that I had to put the book down a few times and read other books, but I kept coming back to it because I wanted to learn more about The Hemingses and their story. Gordon-Reed certainly demonstrated how The Hemingses were unique in the fact that most of the family stayed together for life. But they were required to move wherever and whenever Jefferson and his family required it. Hence the five year stay in Paris that ultimately changed Sally's and her brother James's life forever.

I honestly didn't know what to think about Thomas Jefferson. At times, he seemed as kind and generous as he could be as a slave owner. On the other hand, he was a slave owner and started an affair with a very young Sally Hemings. I guess I can never get over the irony that the same man who wrote The Declaration of Independence stating that "All men are created equal," not only owned slaves but fathered children with a slave whom he never freed.

Finally, there is so little information about the Hemings family and about Sally's relationship with Jefferson that most of the time, the author really used her best guess based on other facts to write about what happened. We'll never know how the two really felt about each other. We'll never know why James Hemings committed suicide. The author did what historians do and created a story based on research, but there are crucial pieces missing.

Overall, I'm glad the book has received such national attention because the story of the Hemings family needs to be told. I just wish the author was a better storyteller or that her editors could have helped her revise it to make it more accessible and approachable.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Historical Fiction Selection

And the winner of our April Historical Fiction selection is The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James!

I confess that I checked this book out already and couldn't put it down. If you're a Jane Austen fan, you will especially love this, and I do recommend reading or re-reading Sense and Sensibility first. Why? Because the book follows Jane as she's polishing her draft of Sense and Sensibility, and you will recognize how the events of her life (as they're fictionally told in the memoirs) mirror some characters and situations in Sense and Sensibility. There are also a lot of references to Pride and Prejudice.

Okay, so I hope everyone has a chance to read the book and we'll start discussions on April 10th.

Also, a reminder that discussions for our nonfiction selection, The Hemingses of Monticello, will begin on Friday. I may post on Wednesday or Thursday because my daughter is turning two next week, and family and friends will be in town for the celebration.