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Monday, August 28, 2017
5:02 pm edt
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,
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
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!
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,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
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
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
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.