Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor

t-jefferson-sally-hemingsI chose to read this book after reading a synopsis of it in Book Page. I vaguely remembered hearing that Thomas Jefferson had a long standing and intimate relationship with one of the female slaves he owned and I was intrigued to learn more.

 

Interspersed with what might have been Mr. Jefferson’s dreams and imaginings, as well as Ms. Hemings’ thoughts throughout the many years they were together, the author’s narrative walks us through the lives of these two people. It also includes actual writings from a couple of their children and what transpired after Mr. Jefferson’s death.

Being an historical novel, one learns much about the early years of our democracy through the work of Mr. Jefferson and other founding fathers. But the central story is the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as well as their individual and collective struggle with slavery as it was lived in the US at that time. On the one hand, I came to appreciate the complexity of the issue for our newly forming country, while remaining sympathetic to the cruel plight of thousands of slaves.

Apparently, not much fact is actually known about Ms. Hemings. I was fascinated to read what could have been her “take” on this, her most significant adult male relationship throughout a good portion of her life. According to this author, Sally struggled her entire life trying to understand the nature of love between two people, as well as seeking emancipation for herself and their children.

Thomas Jefferson must also have struggled mightily between his public and his private personas.

Though this book is a bit over 600 pages, it’s a quick read, but not one that delivers a quick understanding of these two people’s lives, nor the underlying issue throughout the book. However, the examination of this complex connection is well worth the reader’s time.  Submitted by avid reader and lover of historical novels, Shirley.