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Monday, August 28, 2017

At the end of the “Author’s Note” of Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel – a stunning novel about the relationship between Martha Randolph Jefferson and her father, Thomas Jefferson – Sally Cabot Gunning quotes Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of the non-fiction Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy:

In the end, it will probably be left to novelists, playwrights, and poets,
unencumbered by the need for footnotes
to get at the ultimate meaning of this story

Gunning then adds her own tag line: This is why I write historical fiction.

Growing up in the umbra of her father’s brilliant career as one of our Founding Fathers [he penned our Declaration of Independence], a one-term vice-president and two-term President, as well as an esteemed statesman, Martha was conflicted by her intense devotion to him and his relationship with one of his slaves after the death of her mother. Gunning in this, her fifth enlightening historical novel, casts a broad swath of sunlight onto the polemic that has plagued Jefferson’s reputation for the last 200 or so years.

Now, for those of you who are unaware, Jefferson lost his wife during the birth of their second daughter, Maria, when Martha was about six years of age. He subsequently turned to Sally Hemings, a young, nubile slave whose family he had inherited from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who, ahem, just happened to be Sally’s father. The resemblance between Sally and her-half-sister, Martha’s mother, is uncanny. As is Martha’s to Sally and to her four children, all sired by Jefferson. The intermingling, er, copulation of “master” and “slave” was not all that uncommon back when owning other people was legal and widely accepted. And, in the case of Martha Jefferson, the morality of which was often silently questioned.

Incorporating the facts into her fictional account, Gunning strips away the footnotes, erases the legends, and lays bare Jefferson’s dilemma – free his slaves or keep them and treat them, as he did, as members of his own family. Which, in fact, many of them were… What she brings to the forefront is how Martha comes to terms with her father’s postponed promises and Sally’s presence – and that of her half-siblings – in her life. About such conflicts, exceptional novels are written.

A historical novelist myself, I particular enjoyed how the author modeled her real-life characters and their words after their writings, diaries, and letters to one another. Nothing is sugar-coated [as some novelists tend to do]; history is not sullied, but augmented. And, given the socio-political events of the last three weeks, this novel is both timely and instructive as well as an enjoyable read. Which, I’ve always said, is what a good historical novel should do: educate and elucidate while being entertaining.

It doesn’t take much to understand Gunning’s message: All men of our checkered past, of our history are complex individuals, exemplifying both the good and bad sides of humanity. Just like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and, yes, Thomas Jefferson who the author neither condones nor condemns. Gunning just simply tells it like it was. It is up to her readers to decide. And, hopefully, none of us to judge.

The copy of Monticello sent to me by the publisher [William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins] has ten Reading Group Discussion Questions in the “About the Book” section. The last one asks: Everyone comes to Thomas Jefferson in a different way, influenced by his or her own time in history.  How has today’s political climate influenced you image of the man?

I know what my answer is. What, after reading this well-written and interesting historical novel about him and his daughter, will be yours?

Enjoy the read!

5:02 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,