I am old enough to remember the furor this book caused when it first came out in 1979, presenting in novelized form the thesis that Thomas Jefferson had a long-time liaison and numerous children by his slave Sally Hemings. Since that time, DNA studies have confirmed the connection, which was ardently denied by staunch Jefferson defenders then and still today. Details of these conflicts as well as a helpful family tree appear in a new afterword by the author along with Reader’s Questions which will make this new edition even more useful for today’s readers.
I didn’t read this book when it first came out, but I’m glad to have done so today. Although sometimes weighted down by a history we all know, or think we know, this novel nonetheless demonstrates the power of fiction to put forth historical facts in a way that scholarly articles cannot. For the story of the Hemingses was floating around in scholarly journals and yet did not become widely known–or widely objected to–until this story portrayed the woman “as a person with actual thoughts and conflicts,” as another reviewer has said. This is the power of fiction to offend the creators of larger-than-life heroes of any stripe, but particularly those who deny the paradoxes upon which our country is built. To offend where nonfiction cannot. It also brought to my mind the dubious nature of “freedom,” of monetary relationships where the people who clean up all our present-day messes are anonymous, not tied to us in webs of family and childhood play, and so we feel no responsibility to sit with them as they die.