The euphemism “peculiar institution” seems particularly apt when considering Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. The great founding father who penned the words “all Men are created equal” owned more than 130 slaves when he died in 1826. However enlightened and “revolutionary” Jefferson may have been for a man of his times, he nonetheless engaged in the savage practice of buying and selling human beings throughout his life.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s completely engrossing historical novel looks at the last 20 years of Thomas Jefferson’s life through the eyes of three of his slaves: Beverly and Madison Hemings, who were also his sons, and Peter Fossett. That Jefferson fathered Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston by their mother Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, was a secret everyone knew at Monticello. Jefferson may not have been the worst of slave owners, but he was capable of cruelties such as whipping runaways and breaking up families as slaves were sold off. These horrors were dispensed by overseers, but they were done at his behest.
Bradley brings her characters and setting vividly to life. There are many heartbreaking moments, such as Beverly’s mother scolding him for referring to Master Jefferson as “Papa.” Jefferson is appropriately portrayed as a deeply conflicted man who could shower his slave children with fatherly attention one moment and then treat them like pieces of furniture the next. Three-quarters of the way through the story, the point of view shifts from Beverly and Madison to Peter Fossett, another enslaved boy on the plantation but not one of Jefferson’s sons. Although initially jarring, the shift proves crucial for the heart-wrenching conclusion.
In an afterword, Bradley explains what later happened to each of the characters and which aspects of the story are historical and which are fictional. She also includes a bibliography of books and websites for further study. Jefferson’s Sons is a fascinating, disturbing portrait of an American family that reflects many of the bizarre paradoxes of our history. This story has been told before, but never has it been told so completely and so well for young readers.