Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – Retro Review by Ginger Healy
Usually the kids react somewhat. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. They asked what Thomas Jefferson meant with this line. Why he said “all men” when not everybody was treated equally then. A stir is usually felt in the room. Then we move on to the other parts of the Declaration and go about our day.
But this year was different.
On the day we dissected the Declaration of Independence, there was an uproar in my classroom. My students were outraged. How could Thomas Jefferson declare that all men were created equal? All men were certainly not treated equally in 1776. All men would include slaves. Slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson wrote those powerful, revolutionary, history-making words, yet he didn’t follow them himself. My students were dumbfounded. Enraged. Completely blindsided by disbelief.
This became the most powerful moment in my ten years of teaching.
What I saw was a room full of young people asking questions. Making connections that opposed the narrative they had come to know. Leaning in to the idea that our founding fathers, so brilliant and so revered, were flawed human beings too. We wouldn’t be Americans without them. Yet the American spirit of learning for yourself, having your own ideas, and debating those ideas intelligently is alive today because of our founding fathers. I’m willing to bet that, had he been in my classroom in that moment, Thomas Jefferson would have been just as proud of my fifth graders as I was.
This one-of-a-kind class discussion continues to resonate with me months later. It led me to pick up Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I read the synopsis and was intrigued. Not to mention the fact that I was excited at the chance to read another book by the author that crafted the incredible The War that Saved My Life, which I would argue is one of the best middle grade historical fiction novels ever written.
I was stunned by Jefferson’s Sons. Emotionally enraptured. Bradley brought to light a challenging subject and brought humanity to it. We are used to reading about Thomas Jefferson as the founding father who wrote the Declaration of Independence. He is our nation’s third president. The founder of the University of Virginia. A chapter in a text book. A portrait hung in a gallery. A statue.
Bradley portrays Jefferson’s world in color. Jefferson, or Master Jefferson as he is called throughout the story, plays an important role. We see him as the master of his Monticello and a man in love. In love with Sally, a slave he owns.
As with any novel, part of the role of the reader is to become accustomed to the norms of the setting. All genres and all plots require this. While reading Jefferson’s Sons, settling into the world of a post-revolutionary American south is challenging and disturbing. We are reminded that slaves were whipped. They were property. They were yelled at regularly. They were prohibited from learning to read. They worked until their hands were bloody but they were not paid for their work. We also experience their world as pulsing with love for their families. This love carries the reader through the story from start to finish and leaves your heart aching for the characters.
Sally is the backbone of a strong and brave family. She is the mother to four living children, three deceased, and lives on Mulberry Row with the other slaves of Monticello. Sally is wise and passes her wisdom on to her children Beverly, Harriet, Maddy and Eston. Master Jefferson is their father. This is an unspoken fact known by all around them. Sally’s children resemble Master Jefferson. Their skin is lighter than the others’.
One of the most prevalent themes and storylines is the idea of privilege and hierarchy within the slave community. Sally’s family struggles with this, as they are interwoven into their community at Mulberry Row, a family in and of itself. Due to Sally’s relationship with Master Jefferson and the fact that her children are his as well, Sally’s family is treated differently than the other slaves at Monticello. Sally doesn’t have to work very hard, relatively speaking. Her children are able to take on jobs that interest them, such as apprenticeships in the carpenter’s shop. They are never forced to work in the field. They learn to play the violin. They learn to read. They will never be sold. The most significant difference is Sally’s children will be granted freedom when they turn 21.
The story spans over several decades and shifts protagonists from Beverly to Maddy to Peter, the son of a close friend on Mulberry Row. We see their world from their different perspectives. We feel Beverly’s disbelief when he learns who his father is at the young age of seven. We feel Maddy’s sense of rejection and feeling different when it occurs to him that he might not ever “pass” for white, unlike his siblings, and the set of challenges he’ll face as a result. We feel Peter’s thumping heartbeat as he faces the unthinkable at the story’s emotional conclusion. We feel Sally’s strength as she prepares to bid farewell to each of children.
Bradley’s thought-provoking and emotional tale ensconces us in a time that needs to be remembered. It speaks to the American spirit of asking questions and thinking for yourself that my fifth graders so passionately embodied. It is a book that belongs in every classroom library and should be explored by every American.
Ginger Healy lives in Los Angeles with her husband Brian, son Sean (2.5), daughter Gigi (1.5), and cat Ninja (7). She teaches fifth grade, reads middle grade fiction pretty much exclusively, and blogs about books when she has the time. She is also currently in the throes of the messy-first-draft phase of her first novel and is in awe of every author who ever lived for having gone through this process. Follow Ginger on Twitter @books_ghealy.