The President’s Daughter
Harriet Hemings Jefferson, the secret daughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, lives a shadowed life best summarized by a quote from Voltaire within this novel, “There is no history, only fictions of various degrees of plausibility.” In his elder years, Thomas Jefferson gives Harriet permission to leave the South and travel to Philadelphia to live as a free white woman, but he refuses to give her manumission papers. For to place such a statement in writing would be a certified acknowledgment of not only her freedom but also his paternity. Harriet therefore lives a fictional life as a free, wealthy white woman, defining the remaining, haunting narrative.
Harriet’s search for truth and justice for the entire slave population, which she cannot deny is the larger part of her heritage, spans pre-Civil War to post-Reconstruction history in a style rivaling the best nonfiction accounts of this period. Thus, the reader learns of the infamous scandal caused by the revelations of Jefferson’s journalist nemesis, Thomas Callendar, as well as the horrific fighting with accompanying political plotting causing devastating fatalities for both the North and South during the Civil War. Exposure to the Northern abolitionist movement introduces Harriet to the rampant racism underlying those who claim they are fighting for freedom and equality for the Southern slaves. The loss of two husbands and two sons, the threat of exposure by a secret deliverer of messages, and a final confession rejected as dementia are just a few of the poignant moments lacing this novel with constantly overlapping, tense and deeply sad conflicts tearing apart Harriet’s mind and emotions in this memorable, magnificent novel. The President’s Daughter is the best novel this reviewer has read in years. Lovers of historical fiction, this is a must read!