I love historical fiction. But when it’s based on actual people who really lived, I hope and pray there’s evidence of meticulous research to back up whatever plot appears on the page. And let me say right from the get go: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley delivers. Her epilogue/historical background at the close of the novel was the icing on the historical cake for me. But that’s for later. Let’s start at the beginning…
Beverly is very young when he realizes that he is different. It’s not just because his skin is lighter than the other slaves’ at Monticello. He’s treated differently, too. His mother has been assured by Master Jefferson that when each of her children turns twenty-one, they will be freed. Until then, they will remain, working on the estate. But Beverly is too small to understand why this must be–all he sees is that, although he is Master Jefferson’s son, he must cover up the truth. His mother shushes him when he calls Jefferson “Papa” and tells him to stay away from the founding father’s other children and grandchildren. Beverly is confused, but as he grows older, the delicate politics of his situation becomes ever more apparent. Someday, his mother says, he will be free. Someday he will leave Monticello. Someday he will pass for white. But he will never, ever be able to claim Thomas Jefferson as his father.
Beverly’s younger brother, Madison, will be free, too, when he is twenty-one. But as he grows older, he realizes that he will not be like Beverly, their sister Harriet, or even their youngest brother Eston. Maddy’s skin is darker than his siblings’, too dark to convincingly pass for white. When he turns twenty-one, he will be free, but he will never be able to reunite with his family without putting their new lives in danger. For Maddy, twenty-one is a final goodbye to the people he loves most.
Yes, this could be a difficult topic to introduce to a young reader, but Bradley does it with empathy and finesse. She tells the story from three perspectives–Beverly’s, Maddy’s, and Peter’s, one of their closest friends–and in so doing keeps the story alive and energetic. And although this is a story about growing up in slavery, it is not one that will disturb young readers. Bradley’s novel is character driven, and it is the discoveries and growing up of the protagonists that we are meant to focus on.
Jefferson’s Sons is, at its heart, a display of contrasts. The boys live in relative comfort and peace at Monticello, but it is also their prison. Jefferson is gentle and kind to Beverly and Maddy, but he also sells Maddy’s closest friend and tears him from his family for no apparent reason. Maddy will one day be free, but he will also have to carry papers that he must produce whenever a white man demands them. Thomas Jefferson suggested that all men are created equal, and yet he owned slaves. There are no easy answers here.
It should be noted that Bradley, for the most part, didn’t make this stuff up. As I mentioned earlier, she did her research, which she discusses at the end of the book. Every named character that appears in the plot is based on someone who really lived. Most historians agree that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, and DNA and historical evidence back up the claim.
I love it when authors bury themselves in research. I love it when they take those facts and weave them into a beautifully crafted, engaging story. Thanks, Ms. Bradley!
Miss Megan G.
Jefferson’s Sons, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books (an imprint of Penguin), Ages 10+