Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings: A Novel

Stephen O'Connor. Viking, $28 (624p) ISBN 978-0-525-42996-8
O'Connor (Orphan Trains) delves with great acuity and depth into the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who required sexual intimacy from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, for nearly 40 years. Interweaving contemporary documents, narrative, fable, and fantasy, O'Connor creates startlingly vivid portraits of his major characters as well as the many injustices of slavery. The weighty political events of the day barely surface in the background as the novel focuses almost claustrophobically on the fraught intimacy between Jefferson and Hemings, from their humiliating first encounters to the steady companionship that evolves as they age. O'Connor takes additional imaginative leaps to further illuminate their relationship, including Hemings's fictional autobiography, scenes in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, and having the two meet on a subway in modern times. Hemings is depicted as a proud, strikingly beautiful woman possessed of intelligence and good sense, conflicted in her relationship with the master she grows to love, but O'Connor's real interest lies in understanding how a man so deeply committed to the ideals of democracy could be inherently racist, "both coward and hypocrite," and thus "abjectly human." The book meditates in turn on perception, justice, hatred, and evil, making visible—though never rationalizing—the profound contradictions between Jefferson's philosophical ideals and his private life. This is a challenging, illuminating, and entirely original work that's broad enough to encompass joy, penance, "complexity, ambiguity," and "our muddy human souls." (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 04/11/2016
Release date: 04/01/2016
Paperback - 624 pages - 978-0-14-312889-2
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