Imagine knowing learning who your father is but not being able to act on that information. You can’t hug him, run up to him, watch what he’s doing without leave or even call him Papa. Calling him your father will result in the fiercest of scoldings from your mother. It isn’t safe to acknowledge him and you should never expect him to acknowledge you in anything more than a perfunctory manner.
That’s the way of life Beverley struggles with every day. He belongs to his father and it isn’t just blood that binds this family. Beverley’s mother is Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, the home of a president in Virginia. Beverley’s father is Thomas Jefferson.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has woven together the stories of a succession of three young boys living on Mulberry Row at Monticello–Beverley Hemings, his younger brother James Madison “Maddy” Hemings, and Peter Fossett, who was the son of the plantation blacksmith and a French-trained cook. Each boy wrestles with what slavery is, what it means for their lives and the terrible pains it doles out. Through these young narrators, Bradley is able to reveal much of the time period and culture through the boys’ questions and reactions.
Sally Hemings repeatedly tells her children they will be freed when they are 21. What does that mean for them? What will they have to give up or hide to do so? What will be different for Maddy as he looks different than his siblings? The boys wrestle with changes as they grow up and begin to be treated differently. Why can Peter’s brother work in the fields as a water boy but Maddy isn’t allowed? Why can’t Maddy’s mother help when Peter’s brother is forced to leave Monticello to work for another man?
While at times this book’s narrators are elementary school age, I would recommend Jefferson’s Sons for upper middle school and high school readers. Several scenes from this book would be powerful in a social studies class, particularly the final, heart-wrenching scene following the death of Thomas Jefferson and what that entails for the slaves at Monticello. An earlier scene about what makes someone a slave using then baby Maddy as an example could also be a powerful discussion starter.
Don’t miss the author’s note on this book as it talks about the research the author conducted, continuing controversies, DNA testing and more about the Jefferson-Hemings family. I found the information on what Maddy and Eston kept secret to be fascinating.
An interesting pair for this book would be Ann Rinaldi’s Wolf by The Ears, which is a young adult historical fiction published in the 1990s from the point of view of Harriet Hemings, Beverley and Madison’s sister. Historiography has changed since the publication of Wolf by the Ears so it would be interesting to contrast the two. Read as part of an AP history class, Wolf by the Ears was the first time I learned of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved children and that moment stuck with me.
As a side note, I have visited Monticellow several times and Poplar Forest once. Being familiar with the properties made this book all the more interesting.