Jefferson's Sons Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Beverly is a child when his father gives him a violin. It's the first sign Beverly's had that his father cares. But Beverly's not allowed to tell anyone who is father is, he's not allowed to refer to him as "Papa," only "Master Jefferson." He doesn't understand why. He doesn't understand why Miss Martha will never admit she's his sister. He doesn't understand why he can't go see his father when he's in residence at the great house.
As adults, we understand because we know that Beverly is the oldest surviving child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Jefferson has promised the Hemmings children their freedom when turn 21. Because 7 of their 8 great-grandparents are white, they're legally white, and Hemmings plans on her children to live as white people. The thought of leaving his mother and never seeing his family again doesn't agree with Beverly and he vows to stay, despite his mother's objections.
After a few years, the narrative shifts to Beverly's younger brother Maddy, who feels an even darker side to Jefferson when he sells Maddy's best friend, James. Maddy also knows he will never be light enough to live as a white person, like his siblings.
A few years further down the road and the narrative switches to James's younger brother Peter. Peter bears witness for the decline of Monticello, Jefferson's last days and the aftermath of his death.
I like the shifting focus. It stays in focused 3rd person, but the focus changes, which allows time to pass but the narrator to stay middle grade aged. Baker excellently captures a child's view of the world they live in (and for Beverly and Maddy, it is a protected and yet brutal world, due to their odd status.) The children and the narration and their comprehension grow and change, but before they'd get to old and shift to teen or adult, the narrator shifts to a younger character. The fact the characters are so close to each other means we already know Maddy and Peter when they take over the story, but we still see Beverly (an later Maddy) when the focus shifts away.
A large part of the initial heartbreak of this book is that, as an adult reader, we understand all the things that Beverly doesn't. Not to say that kids won't understand, as the answers are there soon enough, adults and older readers will just already know. The book carefully skirts the inherit power issues involved in the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship by making them truly love each other. I love how it showed the complexity of Jefferson. Maddy, especially, struggles with this.
More than that I loved the look of daily life on the Mulburry Row. The boys are all sons and training to be skilled labor-- they don't do field work and don't really know the slaves that do. They know "going to ground" as being an awful thing. It was an interesting look at the class differences amongst the slaves. I also really liked the way Baker paints the slow financial decline of Jefferson and Monticello-- the way the kids pick up on the tension in the great house and amongst their parents-- it's very well done.
Overall, it's just a plain fantastic book that doesn't skirt the issues but doesn't get bogged down the horror. There's also a fantastic author's note at the end discussing what's true and what isn't. I appreciate the fact that Baker says there is nothing in there that couldn't be true-- she actually rewrote sections when new discoveries were made.
This will be on everyone's Newbery lists this year.
Book Provided by... my local library
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