Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is an incredible piece of historical fiction that will leave readers with unanswered questions. Based on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, readers are brought into the world of slavery at Monticello during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Sally Hemings had four children with Jefferson, three boys and 1 girl; three of those children were light-skinned enough to one day pass for white. The story occurs over the course of about twenty-one years with the two oldest sons (Beverly and Madison) as well as a third boy close to the family, taking turns serving as the central figure throughout the story. Even though everyone knows who their father is, the children are taught that it should never be brought up as to any tension it may create. Especially since Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and her children live at Monticello, and they are constantly receiving guests. The family does receive special considerations; violin lessons for the boys, Madison learns to read, apprenticeships, new shoes, yet the children struggle with knowing who their father is and not being able to have that kind of relationship with him.
I listened to the audiobook and I can ‘t help but think that this would make wonderful (but lengthy) read aloud. There are so many times in which a character asks why? Such great natural stopping points for kids to have some amazing discussions about right and wrong and the contradictions we find in life. As a reader, I constantly found myself asking why. And of course, the age-old question of Jefferson’s character comes up. How can the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, the man who helped to create a new country, upon his death have 130 slaves at Monticello? Five of those slaves were set free upon his death, two of whom were his youngest children. But the wife and children of one of those freed slaves were sold at auction, being dispersed across Virginia.
I found this book in an elementary library. I’m not sure if that is the best place for it. Only because the reader really should have a good understanding of slavery in the early 1800s and some of the content could be considered fairly intense. That being said, I can think of some former 5th grade students who would have devoured this book. It would probably make better sense in a middle school or high school library. There would be several jumping off points into different aspects of American History – the life of Thomas Jefferson after his presidency, Monticello, slavery, freed slaves living in the North, just to name a few. Jefferson’s Sons would be a wonderful addition to any U.S. History class.
I don’t know that I’ve done this book justice. It’s one of those books that is so amazing it really doesn’t matter what I write. I can’t find enough words to tell you that this is a must read and it will stay with you long after you’ve read it.