Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings
A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account.
For the most part, the novel offers a standard narrative that follows both Jefferson and Hemings from childhood through their long-standing intimate relationship and beyond. It wrestles with the question of Sally’s level of consensual participation, as well as the contradictions between Jefferson’s philosophy and practice. Throughout the main narrative, however, is a series of flight-of-imagination vignettes: Thomas Jefferson watches a Hollywood movie of his life; an interviewer tapes a Q&A with Sally Hemings and her brother James; Thomas Jefferson sees his former lover, Sally Hemings, from across a crowded and lurching subway car.
Some of these work better than others, but they allow O’Connor to explore concepts and perspectives in ways the main narrative could not. A disturbing exchange between a female guard and the male prisoner (Jefferson) she is tasked with torturing demands that we contemplate how it is that anyone who buys and sells human beings is not considered evil.
Most affecting is Sally’s “confession,” related in snippets, in which she reflects upon the ways that perhaps she was a collaborator in an evil system, turning a blind eye to others’ suffering while she benefited from her status. Her confession culminates in the horror of the auction of 130 Monticello slaves, held after Jefferson’s death to help pay his significant debts. Unfortunately, that is an historical fact.