America's First Daughter
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, follows the life of Martha Jefferson, daughter of Thomas Jefferson, from the age of nine, well into her old age. At least, what was considered old at the time. The book begins shortly after her mother has passed away. And boy, has this left a huge weight on her shoulders.
I absolutely love a good historical fiction novel, and this one had been on my list for some time. I was excited to finally get to it. Having always been interested in history, I’m constantly on the look out for stories and books that provide a woman’s perspective as well. I think quite often our knowledge of history seems to be only what we’ve learned in school. Those lessons rarely include the contributions of women. And make no mistake, women have been contributing throughout history.
Even the lessons we did learn, tend to fade over time for many of us, once the exams are done and classes passed. With historical fiction novels, I feel as if I get a bit of a refresher on history without having to pull out a text book.
Although if we’re being honest, I am a sucker for books that give you tidbits of information. I have probably picked up history books from the bargain section of Barnes & Noble, more times than I would like to admit. This includes books in the “30 Seconds” series, like 30 Second Religion, and 30 Second Economics. There was also “Royal Love Stories” about the real life romances and affairs of Europe’s kings and queens. Of course, History’s Monsters, which Greg and I have been making our way through together for almost as long as we’ve been together. I’m praying that we finish reading these profiles by the end of this summer. As interesting as they are, they can also be super depressing. And I can't forget Scandalous Women!
But I digress. I love historical fiction because there’s an opportunity to learn bits of information and spark memories, by thinking back to the context and to what I’ve learned previously. There’s an opportunity to connect the story to a bigger pool of knowledge outside of the book.
I was looking forward to that with this book. With the 4th nearing, this book set during the revolutionary war and the few decades after was sure to set the mood to get super pumped to be American, right?\
Not exactly. Opening up the book, and reading the first few pages I had a sudden sinking feeling. I was so worried that this whole book would just romanticize the relationship between Thomas Jefferson, and his mistress and slave, Sally Hemings.
I am completely aware that historical fiction takes liberties in the way things are portrayed. But I could not help but worry. Slavery had real costs that ripple through society even today. I was worried that this book would romanticize the relationship between a slave owner and his slave, and undermine the horror that was slavery and ignore the actual power imbalance that exists in such a set up.
Luckily, I was mistaken. That’s not to say the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings wasn’t sugar coated at all. But throughout the book, along with the mention of their relationship, there was a constant voice against Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, and of his keeping one of his slaves as a mistress. That voice belonged to William Short and I’m so glad that he was present throughout the book to remind the reader that despite what this little girl might think about her father having a mistress, this is wrong on multiple levels.
He remains a strong advocate against slavery, Virginia’s economic dependency on it, and of Jefferson personally owning slaves. Having that character and a few others voice the opposition to slavery on moral and ethical grounds throughout the book had me let out a sigh of relief. I felt like no one could possibly put down this book and think, ‘see, slavery wasn’t all bad,’ because the opposition was there throughout the story as a voice of reason.
This particular book also got me thinking a lot about the responsibility of authors who write historical fiction. How much are they obligated to stay true to history versus just writing a good story? Are there obligations that historical fiction authors face that other genres might not?
As I continued to read the book, I realized that slavery wasn't the only topic where the authors were not going to sugar coat or romanticize relationships. Aside from the power imbalance between a slave owner and his slave, the authors brought to light the dynamics of marriage in colonial times. What those norms meant for women, and how normalized domestic abuse was. It was heart breaking to read at times, but amidst it all was this strong female character trying to navigate it all.
Despite my initial concerns, the story, the writing, the incredibly likable main character, Martha, and the excerpts from letters all made this book so enjoyable. It was a book that really drew me in and I was eager to find out more about Martha's life, her concerns, her wishes, her dreams, and her relationships. And not just her relationships with the men in her life, but her relationship with the women, both her peers and the matriarchs she met having been the daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The wives of the politicians our history books teach us about. Women like Dolley Madison, who practically invented the role of the First Lady.
At the back of the book are notes from the authors outlining what was real, and what was fiction. It increased my appreciation for the amount of work authors put into historical fiction, and also made my jaw drop at the parts of the story that were very much true as corroborated with legal documents and news clippings.
I loved this book. If you love historical fiction, and if you love reading about history from perspectives the history books don't provide, or if you love reading the stories of strong and resilient women, I highly recommend this book. How I would have loved to learn about 'America's First Daughter' in school.