Happy Fourth of July!
In honor of our American Independence, I thought it only right that I review a book that pertains to one of the founding fathers — Thomas Jefferson.
I picked up America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie for two reasons. One, I’m on a Hamilton kick and who doesn’t want to see Jefferson’s side of the story from his eldest daughter’s eyes. Two, I loved Laura Kaye’s Hearts in Darkness, which is a pen name for Laura Kamoie.
In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.
It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.
Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.
This well-researched novel is a bit deceiving. It seems like a simple story, but its a dense, well-thought-out piece of work. It’s long, coming in at 600 pages, and it’s mostly a play-by-play of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson’s life. (Side Note: What’s with people having nicknames in the 19th century that sounded nothing like their real name?) I think Stephanie and Laura did a great job bringing her story to life. I was intrigued by her thoughts, and I appreciated that the authors used wording from actual letters written by the men and women represented by these characters.
The literary lover in me really enjoyed this novel. I can appreciate it and acknowledge that it succeeded in accomplishing what it was meant to be — a fresh perspective into this time frame from a female viewpoint. However, the book left me with an overwhelming feeling of melancholy. I felt sad because of how sucky it must have been to be a woman in the 19th century, to be forced to choose between duty and love, and to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband in an age where women had no power to protect themselves or their children. I pitied Patsy for what she had to endure. It fueled my inner rage, that little feminist devil on my shoulder that calls for justice and the burning of bras. (Okay, maaaybe not that bad.)
There were a couple things I wish were different. I wish they would have played more with the idea of slavery and Jefferson’s forbidden relationship with Sally. However, that first shocking scene when Patsy finds them together was a masterpiece. I have that scene seared into the back of my mind. I also wish they would have taken more artistic license. I wanted more details about Patsy and William Short, especially at the end.
Although this book was incredibly enlightening on Patsy’s life and the politics surrounding her, I didn’t feel joy or inspiration from her story. Maybe I was expecting a Hamilton-like, epic ending that leaves the audience pumped to go forth and “write their story,” but this novel left me sad…and grateful that I live in the 21st century.
STARS: 3 out of 5