Friday, March 13, 2009

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.

1 comment:

ReadingTub said...

Jill, your review is fabulous. Nonfiction isn't fiction, but that doesn't mean there can't be a story. Your point about creating a book that is accessible is so true. It will be difficult to get this story "out there" in a way that will grab most readers' attention.