Tag Archives: Slavery

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Blue NotebookClearly, James A. Levine is a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s an endocrinologist and professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic, he co-directs Obesity Solutions, a project of Mayo and Arizona State University (where he also professors), he’s credited with pioneering the treadmill desk, he NEATly Gruves … oh, and he also happens to write bestselling novels.

Perhaps he never sleeps – at least not well. He confesses to as much, about the “vivid nightmares” he endured for years after meeting a Mumbai child prostitute in his detailed “Afterword”; although narrator Meera Simhan provides a superb reading, you’ll need to turn to the actual pages for Levine’s not-to-be-missed additional insights, memories, afterthoughts, and more.

As part of investigating child labor in India, Levine found himself on the infamous “Street of Cages” in Mumbai, “one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country.” There he saw a 15-year-old girl in a pink sari, writing in her blue notebook. “I’ve found that the mantra ‘Education is the answer’ is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.” Levine’s nightmares repeatedly ended with the specter of the girl standing over him in the middle of night. And so he “finally set out to write her story – it spilled onto the paper” in 58 days and became this, his debut novel.

Batuk, as Levine named her, was 9 when her father sold her to a brothel. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder and after she’s been heinously abused, she is eventually sent to “Common Street” where she lives in a “cell, with its steel bars … the size of a toilet.” Her best friend is beautiful Puneet, who “occupies the nest two down”: “Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.”

“I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil,” Batuk introduces herself. “My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.” That pencil records her shattering life, recalls the stories she was told as a village child, and enables her to create her own as the only means of escaping her unbearable reality. Summoned to a luxury hotel to be a spoiled heir’s temporary sex slave, Batuk takes what solace she can by writing of the horrors she endures on sheets of hotel stationery. Her literacy will preserve her sanity, even when her body can no longer endure.

As unflinchingly brutal as the novel is, Levine cautions that “[t]he pictures I paint onto Batuk’s canvas … are not fully accurate.” These children’s fates are even worse: “Were the burdens of sufferance to be detailed in their duration and intensity, the book would be agonizing to read. I can only open the door but then leave. I paint these images … and apologize that they are only glimpses. More than that I cannot sustain.” Neither, too, could most readers …

Batuk’s uncompromising testimony haunts with its inhumanity, even as it bears witness to a remarkable young girl’s strength, ingenuity, and somehow, hope. Her stories become her salvation – and will also inspire her audience to enable and ensure salvation for others like her, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Monsters of TempletonFirst, a few details to address before we get to award-winning Lauren Groff‘s down-the-rabbit-hole, delightfully convoluted debut novel …

If you choose to go audible, the publishing world offers two versions: I went with Ann Marie Lee (via the local library), although the (later) more readily available recording is by Nicole Roberts. As long as Lee stays away from accents, her narration is just grand. Her version, however, doesn’t include Groff’s opening “Author’s Note,” so you’ll need to find those two pages in print (or stick Roberts in your ears) as they are dense with contextual information.

Templeton is real. Sort of. Templeton is based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, that baseball Mecca named after James Fenimore Cooper‘s father William, the town’s 18th-century founder. Quakers, house by the lake, Yale, great novelists with initials that begin with J.F. – do remember some of those real-life details.

Cooper rechristened the town ‘Templeton’ in The Pioneers, his novel about Cooperstown, in which “his facts also went a little awry,” Groff explains. She herself initially intended to “write a love story for Cooperstown,” but she realized hers was “a slantwise version of the original.” Groff adapted Cooper’s ‘pioneer’-ing approach, as well as some of Cooper’s characters, including Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Chingachgook. “In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies. I ended up with a different sort of story about my town than the one I had begun.”

So now … welcome to Monsters, of which Templeton seems to have many. “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace,” confesses protagonist Willie Upton – a few months short of finishing her Stanford PhD in archeology, and pregnant by her married advisor – “the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” That titular beast is the town’s least benign, and symbol it may be, it’s alas a rather unnecessary diversion from the rest of the narrative.

Having nearly killed her lover’s wife in a spectacular plane chase on the frozen Alaskan tundra, Willie returns to Templeton and her mother Vi in a think-later state of shock. With the discovery of the town’s monster, home is not the calm escape Willie expected. Her former flower-child mother has unexpectedly embraced religion, claiming the town’s pastor as her boyfriend. Hoping to purge her past wrongdoings, Vi confesses that Willie’s wild birthstory involving three potential donors is untrue, and that Willie’s father is actually a shall-not-be-named Templetonian, which means Willie’s heretofore unknown paternal link shares the same blue blood as mother and daughter. Willie’s challenge to dig up her lineage is just the insane sort of project to restore her sanity …

Interwoven with Willie’s personal quest is an acerbic, possibly dying best friend on the other side of the country, the “Running Buds,” a homecoming King too attracted to his returning Queenie, a transformed “Peter-Lieder-Pudding-and-Pie,” not to mention a sprawling, entangled family tree that includes ghosts, slaves, Native Americans, murderers, cheaters, and, of course, writers. From that epic monster mash came forth Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton … and she’s not leaving again until she’s unearthed all her buried roots.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

Wedding GiftTwo sisters, born three months apart on the same Alabama plantation, could not have more different lives. As the daughter of a slave, Sarah is Master Allen’s property; as the legitimate Mrs. Allen’s youngest child, Clarissa is a pampered young lady of means. Playmates as children, Sarah is eventually given to Clarissa’s new household as her personal servant when Clarissa marries an older widower. What is clearly a financial arrangement of convenience threatens the future of the entire Allen estate.

Told in chapters narrated by Sarah and Mrs. Theodora Allen, both women reveal a pre-Civil War society that allowed few freedoms for women, regardless of their skin tones. Being a slave is surely the most heinous existence: when Sarah’s mother Emmeline refuses Master Allen after years of nightly service, he sells Sarah’s older sister to a faraway plantation where she is inhumanely tortured. Theodora arrives on the plantation as a hopeful young wife, and while her privileged status provides lavish creature comforts, she remains a victim of the Master’s violent whims and debaucheries, just as their daughter Clarissa is, in effect, ‘sold’ to the highest bidder.

According to the press release accompanying the galley, first-time author Marlen Suyapa Bodden – who works as an attorney with The Legal Aid Society in NYC – based her novel “on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.” Although the novel’s official publication date is scheduled for later this month, Gift is already a national bestseller, thanks to a 2011 self-published debut that put 150,000 copies into circulation. I might also add that with an African American author, Gift seems rare among recent bestsellers featuring African American narratives: Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were all written by non-African Americans.

As Gift returns to shelves now backed by a major publisher (St. Martin’s Press, part of the vast Macmillan network), it’s also available to stick in your ears, narrated by January LaVoy, who embodies Sarah’s character with determination and authority, and Jenna Lamia, whose flighty youthful voice is surely an example of unfortunate casting. Lamia might have been an ideal choice to personify Clarissa had the chapters been thus written, but her narration lacks any solemnity as the long-suffering Theodora.

That said, even at 10.5 hours, the audible narrative moves more swiftly than on the page; Lamia aside (Sarah’s chapters, thankfully, outnumber Theodora’s), Gift just sounds better than it reads. In silent print, the dialogue, especially, is predictable and stilted, but add a bit of breathily modulated southern accent and such judgment is easily eclipsed. [Could Oprah or Tyler Perry be thinking celluloid?]

With the weather cooling, grab your headset and let the miles fly by with this historic saga of two ill-fated sisters – who needs enemies when you’ve got your own family to wreak such ruinous destruction?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011, 2013

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The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

House GirlGive me a story with two narratives interwoven through nonlinear timelines and, usually, I’ll be one committed reader. The House Girl opens in 1852 rural Virginia with a teenage slave girl named Josephine, then fast forwards in the next chapter to Lina, an ambitious attorney in 2004 New York City. Josephine, the primary caretaker to her dying mistress, plots her escape. Lina, 150 years later, searches for a perfect plaintiff to represent a would-be landmark case seeking substantial reparations for descendants of American slaves. To decipher the (non-familial – nope, not that easy!) relationship between the two disparate characters requires almost 400 pages (or, if you go audible, nearly 15 hours) through a labyrinth of well-guarded secrets, lost identities, and unjust history.

Sounds promising, right? Alas, the dual stories often felt like dueling narratives, wavering between high-brow social treatise and soap opera-like antics (including even a dead mother who comes back to life!). Curiosity kept me reading, yes … but finishing got me thinking …

Split narratives aside, here’s my pressing dilemma: Because I chose to listen to Bahni Turpin whose narration is distinctly African American, I (wrongfully) assumed Lina was African American. In Google-ing author Tara Conklin‘s website to link here, I found an NPR interview that questions Conklin about “… whether she worried about writing a novel about slavery with mostly white characters,” which caused substantial surprise. That Conklin herself is seemingly white (based on her author photo), that “‘You’re not black enough’” is a pivotal line in the novel, that realizing only after reading a book about slavery that it has a single African American main character … well, I confess that context cannot be ignored.

The act of claiming someone else’s story – represented here by canvases of haunting portraits, both historical (Josephine’s) and contemporary (Lina’s father’s paintings of her absent mother) – looms large throughout these pages. How disturbingly ironic that the novel itself seems to echo that sense of appropriation: The House Girl is essentially a white author’s story of an African American slave girl told mostly through white characters. The novel’s details quickly pale as I find I myself challenged (again) to ponder – in our supposedly post-racial 21st-century society, just how much do historic ‘black’ and ‘white’ labels matter … literally?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Nonethnic-specific

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Known WorldWell, I’ve done it now. I’ve finished every Edward P. Jones book ever written … and I see no signs that more are forthcoming anytime soon. Anyone out there who knows otherwise, please do share!

Not to play favorites, but among Jones’ three indelible titles, his single (thus far) novel gets the preferred spot. I’m definitely in collusion with others as it won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (which, with its €100,000 prize, is one of the most generous in the world). With such lauded original text, the audible version – most expertly read by Kevin Free and oh so highly recommended – naturally won a 2004 Earphones Award, too.

World begins and ends with death, one peaceful, the others horrifically violent. In between the almost-400 pages (or 14+ hours stuck in the ears), the (very) nonlinear narrative falters once during Counsel Skiffington’s hallucinogenic wandering after he burns down his plantation. The rest is, indeed, history … of a not-so-well-known phenomenon of slave-owning African Americans in the South. Within the World‘s first five words, the “master” is dead: in July 1855, Henry Townsend, 31, leaves behind a wife … and a plantation of more than 50 acres which he owned, together with 33 human beings that were also his property. Henry himself was a former slave, whose freedom was bought by his parents when he was still a child, and yet whose allegiance and loyalty to his former owner, William Robbins, never wavers. Robbins, no less a complex character, is a white farmer who owns the largest plantation in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, who lives a double life – one with his white wife and daughter, the other with his slave mistress, and their two young children.

Jones’ storytelling jumps decades backwards and forwards, from before Henry’s birth, well into the next century with references to future historians working in the 1950s and even 1970s. Jones moves sometimes unpredictably between characters and experiences, between generations and social classes. He is not always patient, and doesn’t wait for the reader to make immediate connections, and yet he is partial to certain repetitions, including the reappearance of Tessie’s doll made by her father Elias which she will hold onto through her final hour at age 99, and the reunion of Minerva and her sister after 20 separated years marked by her sister’s reaction that begins “‘You done growed.’”

In spite of the movement in time, place, and people, the pieces merge together to create a Known World that haunts, shocks, and long-after resonates with the fates of a disparate community. Henry’s death sets in motion inevitable changes and unexpected events in the lives of his parents, his wife, his in-laws, his friends, his former master, and especially his slaves, as the intricate mosaic that once defined Henry’s existence shifts, transforms, and disappears.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, woodcuts by the author

Etched in Clay Absolute details surrounding the life of Dave the Potter are limited and uncertain. What remains of his life story almost two centuries later, is scattered with uncertain words, including ‘sometime,’ ‘about,’ ‘believed to be,’ ‘might,’ ‘possibly,’ and other such noncommittal qualifiers. The few surviving documents prove an enslaved teenager was bought by the Drake family, co-owners of Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory in Edgefield, South Carolina, in whose service he became a talented potter whose creations have survived, in small numbers, and become museum-worthy art pieces.

As if paralleling the sparse details of Dave’s life, Andrea Cheng replicates that sparseness in her slim novel-in-verse; she echoes the poetic etchings Dave added to his pottery by enhancing her verse with etched woodblock prints of her own. The result is a gorgeous, contemplative, artistic memorial to a creative life that survived unspeakable hardship while creating lasting, even subversive, beauty.

Dave’s considerable skill – recognized and lauded … and exploited – cannot save him from the horrors of slavery. His first wife was sold, and later his second wife and her two sons taken from him, as well. He himself is bought and sold within the Drake and related Landrum families. And yet, although literacy is illegal among slaves, Dave is taught to read and write, which enables to etch his name (his objections, his miseries, his screams) into the wet clay and the guarded words he can never say out loud: “horses mules and hogs – / all our cows is in the bogs – / where they will ever stay – / till the buzzards take them away =.”

As much as I’ve appreciated, learned from, and enjoyed Cheng‘s titles over the years (I think I’ve read all but four of her almost two dozen books), this, her latest, is clearly, undoubtedly, most definitely my favorite thus far. Here’s the irony: the subject of Etched in Clay just might be the furthest from her personal experience. Cheng has written numerous books inspired by her Hungarian heritage (Marika, The Lace Dowry, The Bear Makers), although she’s better known for her titles highlighting the Chinese American experience (she’s been part of a hapa Chinese American family since college) including The Key Collection, Shanghai Messenger, Only One Year, and The Year of the Book; Clay is definitely her first, and thus far her only, book with the history of American slavery at its core. So much for ‘write what you know.’ Every so often, talent just trumps all.

Tidbit: In the ending “Author’s Note,” Cheng credits Leonard Todd and his book for adults, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave, for sparking her initial interest in Dave’s story, and later for “helping me so much with this project.” For interested readers, Todd’s website is a treasure trove of further information. The Smithsonian, by the way, owns two of Dave’s pieces (!); click here to see one of his poem jars collected by the National Museum of American History.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, African American, Chinese American

Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Jefferson's SonsLet me start with what has been deemed as historical record. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation – which not only owns and operates Jefferson’s legendary home, Monticello, but maintains the most comprehensive website focused on “Monticello, Jefferson, his family, and his times” – this is the official word on Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings: “The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson’s first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries. Based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic. Ten years later, TJF and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson’s records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings.”

That the man who wrote the very words of the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – not only kept slaves (he owned some 600 human beings during his lifetime), but even fathered at least six slave children, has been a “Paradox of Liberty” for hundreds of years. [If you're interested in finding out more, be sure to check out the online exhibition, presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, in partnership with TJF.]

Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley meticulously takes Jefferson’s history as it was officially recorded at the time of her writing – while clearly acknowledging that historical evidence is not immutable – and creates an unforgettable story (soulfully read by Adenrele Ojo who correctly says ‘Monti-cello‘ like the instrument!) of the complicated relationships within a significant, mixed-race family. Sally Hemings’ children are a secret that everyone in Monticello knows, but no one ever acknowledges: her four surviving children – three sons and one daughter – call their father “Master Jefferson,” just as all the other plantation slaves must do.

Focusing on three characters – including Jefferson’s sons Beverly and Madison – Bradley imagines the lives of the slave children, growing up – and serving – their white relatives; although protected from the worst hard labors, Jefferson’s own progeny are hardly “created equal.” To contrast the comparatively easier lives of Jefferson’s children, Bradley chooses as her third protagonist another (historically documented) plantation child, Peter Fossett, who, unlike Beverly and Maddy can openly love, admire, live with his father, but will be subjected to watching his family splintered and sold.

Intended for younger readers, Bradley navigates admirably through challenging territory, voicing the confusion children must confront in a senseless world they are born into, that they cannot possibly understand. Sally must explain the incomprehensible, conflicting laws that make her children both white (seven of their eight great-grandparents were white – which in itself is a heinous history) and slaves (the child of a slave is also a slave) at the same time. She must prepare at least two of her children for their white destinies by age 18, at the cost of losing each forever … to freedom.

Whether read as history or fiction, Sons is an unflinching look at America’s tragic enslaved past. As African American History Month begins this week, Bradley’s enlightening, fascinating novel is an extremely timely reminder that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are hard-won “inalienable rights” meant for one and all.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American