The Ballad of Billy Lee: The Story of George Washington's Favorite Slave

Len Lamensdorf
Len Lamensdorf. Seascape Press, $19.95 paper (302p) ISBN 978-0-9669741-2-6
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Historian Joseph J. Ellis's introduction to Lamensdorf's historical novel—which recounts the life of George Washington through the eyes of his slave Billy Lee—states that the author compiled the book from "scattered pieces of evidence, then put his own imagination to work in recovering the story they tell." Sadly, the result reads like a history textbook with dialogue. Though the novel centers around the relationship between Billy Lee and Washington—from Washington's purchase of Billy to the founding father's death—Lamensdorf reveals little about the complexity of this union. This is disappointing; though the two men are brothers-in-arms and appear to be friends, their primary relationship is as master and slave. Washington treats Billy as well as a slave can be treated, and eventually frees him in his will. It's a gesture treated by the author as a triumph, as if it revealed Washington's progressive strength of character. The novel is also a failure from a narrative standpoint. Lamensdorf glosses over what should be dramatic highpoints: "Ya don' need to know 'bout all the fightin' an' sufferin' we done ovuh the next year," Billy explains to readers (in slave dialect that is both offensive and without literary merit). Unfortunately, Billy is wrong. Readers do need to know about those things. Instead, Lamensdorf focuses on piddling conflicts, e.g., an attempted seduction of Washington. These subplots are soap opera distractions that fail to compensate for the novel's overall lack of drama.
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