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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A hard book to review: America's First Daughter, a look at the life of Martha "Patsy" Jefferson, her father and family.

I wanted so much to love every word of this book. Instead, I often wanted to hurl the book across the room. Not because of inferior writing or poor research, but because of an interpretation of Patsy Jefferson that made me want to shake her. She wasn't in the room with me, but the book was, so I wanted to hurl it.

This is a novel built around the life of the daughter of one of my favorite figures in American history, Thomas Jefferson, always an enigma.  The important words in the sentence above are "this is a novel." I kept forgetting that as I read, (which in itself is an indication of the authors' abilities), and would get extremely annoyed with Patsy. I would think to myself, "how could she be so weak?' "How could she take that over and over?" Then I would remind myself that this is an interpretation of Patsy Jefferson and her actions and life. In other words, 'this is a novel."

I am writing this on July 4, 2016, exactly 240 years (plus one day for historical accuracy) from the momentous day that gave us the spark that started a revolution. It is also 190 years from the death of two men instrumental in lighting that spark, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Both men left volumes of writings. Both men were patriots, friends at time, and enemies at time. Both men were instrumental in giving the world a new nation. Amazingly, Thomas Jefferson is now featured in a hip-hop Broadway musical (though Alexander Hamilton is the main character) and John is mentioned. The thought comes to mind, which one, or would both, love the musical attention, or would both want to lead another revolution?

I feel that Patsy Jefferson, in her own way, staged a revolution, for she was responsible for determining just what, from her father's personal papers, the world would read. Did she save enough for us to have a fair picture of him? Did she destroy enough that we really don't know him at all? While historians know that Patsy and her children carefully edited Jefferson's papers before publishing them, one can only guess at how much content was lost. Many learned people believe that they skewered our perception of Thomas Jefferson.

Still, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson left us enough that we know Jefferson, but do we know her? From the portrait painted by the authors as interpreted by me, I hope not. I came away felling that she was a strong person when called upon by her public life, but a weak woman in her private life. There, too, I wanted her to be strong. I wanted her to stand up for her children and herself and take control. I wanted her to protect herself and her family from her husband, to stop being an enabler. I suppose I wanted her to behave with a strong backbone, and she did not. I know that looking back at her from my 21st Century perspective probably colors my vision of her.

The authors did a superb job of giving Sally Hemmings life. I enjoyed the nuances of the relationship between Patsy and Sally, the acknowledgement of their places within Thomas Jefferson's life, and within their own shared lives. Sally, unlike Patsy, endeared herself to me.

Additionally, the book filled in blanks in my historical knowledge and aligned history across continents for me. The importance of the American revolutionary ideas to the French Revolution was presented well, and I enjoyed the characterization of Lafayette.

Again, this is a novel. It is a well-researched historical fiction, and that research is presented by two capable authors giving us a very readable literary work. In spite of my feelings toward Patsy Jefferson, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction. The American historical fiction scene always needs a new novel to help fill in the gaps, and this one does just that.

Now I'm off to read and research Martha "Patsy" Jefferson for myself. The authors' bibliography will be helpful in my search.

Available at major outlets on online retailers. I purchased my copy for online reading.