Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Published: March 1st, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Rating: 4 Stars
In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.
It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist, and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.
Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.
I really enjoyed this book. I knew a little bit about Martha Jefferson Randolph because I– and I think you know this– am very into early American History. If she existed 100 years later, she would have been one of the suffragettes or someone comparable to Elenor Roosevelt, but she was born in 1772.
Before I get into the plot of this book, I want to say a couple things about Thomas Jefferson. Firstly, a terrible person. Secondly, I think this book deals with Sally Hemings tastefully. I think this book highlights how, for lack of a better descriptor, gross the relationship was. There is no way to write about early America, especially in the American South, especially Virginia, without talking about slavery. There are parts of this book where I think slavery is glossed over, but I think — as a white person in the 21st century– that when slavery is brushed over it’s more character choices than dismissing the topic all together. The Hemings are a vital part of Martha’s family’s story and this book addresses the whole family in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Thomas Jefferson was also so weird. Like, to the point where I wish he wasn’t a terrible person so I could admire his weirdness. While President, he just wore pajamas all the time. He greeted world leaders in his dressing slippers. He invented swivel chairs because he didn’t want to get out of his chair. I know about his chair because it’s talked about not just in this book, but in things about Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of Treasury because for whatever reason this chair pissed him off so much. (To be a fly on the wall while a 35-year-old man and a 50-year-old man had loud arguments about a chair while they were supposed to be governing a country.) Thomas Jefferson collected weird stuff, he had bear cubs in the basement of the White House when he was President. He loved macaroni and cheese more than any other human person. One thing I really loved about this book is it let me enjoy “Weird Dad” Thomas Jefferson.
Now onto the actual book.
It starts with the death of Thomas Jefferson, then most of the story is told in flashback, kind of, memories sparked by the different letters Patsy is going through as she reads her father’s papers. She decides what to keep, what to edit and what to burn. It’s in the first section before the heart of the book starts where we first meet Sally Hemings as well. For me, meeting Sally five minutes into the book made me feel like this book was going to do it’s best to portray this story without cutting out the hard parts.
The meat of the book starts with the Jeffersons fleeing Montachello during the Revolution while Thomas Jefferson was Governor of Virginia. It’s told through the eyes of eight or nine-year-old Patsy. We grow with Patsy through her mother’s death and her father’s eventual appointment to France. This is where the story picked up for me.
In France, we get to (very briefly) meet Lafayette, which honestly is the highlight of any Revolutionary War story. The book is a very romanticized version of events. There are relationships invented for drama. I like that, it makes the story more interesting. Without the subplot of Patsy and William Short, I would have found this book incredibly boring. It’s in France that the Thomas Jefferson Sally Hemings relationship starts. There is a bit of slut shaming, but it’s also made super clear that Thomas Jefferson is in his forties and Sally is younger than Patsy. There is zero percent of this “relationship” that is okay. The book does spin it a little does make it more romantic than creepy.
This book is about Patsy and her life, so it centers much more in what Patsy was doing than Thomas Jefferson, and frankly, if I wanted to read a book about Thomas Jefferson, there are about 300 million biographies I can read. So I appreciated this book stuck with Patsy. She did play the role we now call First Lady during parts of the Jefferson Presidency– since he was a widower and you can’t exactly have your slave concubine as First Lady. However, for the most party, Patsy wasn’t involved in her father’s political career. She a full life, with 11 children and a mostly terrible husband, even if parts of Thomas Randolph’s life were embellished for the sake of a good story.
To make this about me for a minute, I’m a writer of historical fiction. So I understand fudging the details and condensing timelines and making more of a romantic relationship than there may have been. I really liked how this book was written, and I love the little things they changed to make things more interesting. Sometimes you have to move when the son gets murdered to keep the end of the play from being too sad. (The preceding sentence was about the musical Hamilton.)
The biggest thing I took from this book is a humanized version of Thomas Jefferson. We get to see him as a father and a grandfather, and it’s kind of nice. The other thing we get is something we don’t have a lot of, a version of the early history of the United States through the eyes of a woman, and not just any woman, the daughter of a very important figure in that story. Stories about women in the time are hard to find, but Martha Jefferson Randolph was old enough to remember most of the American Revolution and came of age in Paris during the start of the French Revolution. She sat dinner tables with at least four presidents maybe more (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Quincy Adams). She knew General Lafayette, if she didn’t meet, she most definitely heard about Alexander Hamilton. She was also the wife of the Governor of Virginia.
We learned a lot about Abigail Adams in elementary school because of how outspoken she was, I wish I had learned more about Martha Jefferson Randolph. Through this novel, I think I learned a great deal about her and the extraordinary life she lived.
I know I rambled a bit in this review, but the bottom line is, this was a 26-hour long audiobook, and I loved it. I think if you’re into historical fiction you’ll like it too.
Until next time Internet,