The families who participate in our Reading into History Family Book Club are no strangers to discussing the history of slavery and race in America, but this month’s book, Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, takes us into new territory: the relationship between the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and an enslaved woman he owned, Sally Hemings. Bradley’s gut-wrenching and fascinating work of historical fiction tells young readers the story of Hemings and Jefferson’s enslaved children growing up at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, as seen through their eyes. The family book club will meet to discuss the novel and see documents and images from our Special Collections Library related to slavery, Hemings, and Jefferson on Sunday, May 15 at 2 pm. Best of all, we’ll be skyping with acclaimed author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley during the meeting! We asked Bradley a few questions to prepare readers before talking with her on Sunday. Read on and join us for the meeting. As always, book club meetings are free with Museum admission and no RSVPs are required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What inspired you to write this novel from the perspective of Beverly and Maddy, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ enslaved sons, and Peter Fossett, another enslaved boy at Monticello?
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: I used three narrators and chose the ones I did because of the enormous timeline of this book―it covers 20 years. I wanted to start while Jefferson was still President and end with his death, and to keep a juvenile narrator (a juvenile point-of-view was absolutely necessary to keep this book from becoming too adult for young readers) I had to switch out narrators. Also I really wanted to end with Peter’s sale, which is both gut-wrenching and absolutely true. Peter is actually one of our few sources of primary research material, as he left a long written account of his life as a small boy at Monticello. Peter achieved freedom when he was in his 30s; he became a Baptist minister, a caterer, and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
DCHM: How did you do research for this book? Did you get to look at any original artifacts or documents in your process?
KBB: I went to Monticello twice and to Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s other home, and I read all the primary source material I could find. I also relied on online research through the historical arm of Monticello. They’ve got an extraordinary amount of source material already digitized, and they were also always ready to answer my questions. I did the research in several waves, in between major drafts of the story.
DCHM: What is the most surprising or interesting thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
KBB: I think for me it was a shift in how I viewed the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. When I started my research I thought, quite frankly, that the only word to describe it was rape. The truth was more nuanced than that. Consent doesn’t exist where one person owns another, yet I came to believe that Sally did have some agency, and that she used what she had. She made hard choices for the good of her family.
DCHM: What part of Jefferson’s Sons was the most difficult to write? What part was the easiest or most fun?
KBB: Hands down, the hardest part was when James Fossett is sold. I didn’t know that early on in my research and to write the scene felt impossible. I went through several drafts to find something that felt true, that I could live with, but I still hate, hate, hate that that little boy was sold. He disappears from history; we don’t know what happened to him, but we don’t think he ever achieved freedom or lived with his parents again because we’d find records of him then. The easiest part to write, although horrible, was the ending, with the repetitions of the word ‘sold’ like the auction hammer coming down.
DCHM: You’ve written a few books with historical themes. Do you have a favorite historical era to read about and/or write about?
KBB: I’ve written about World War II several times, and that’s an era I find very interesting.
DCHM: What three words best describe Jefferson’s Sons?
KBB: You’d have to ask my readers―my words would be difficult, honest, complex.
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