"I believe in having a secret life with secret plans and secret dreams," says a slave-mother to her daughter. "Just like having a little vegetable garden to yourself out back of your cabin like mine. You got to work it at night or real early in the morning, but it's yours. Same with dreams. Maybe you got to work them late at night or real early in the morning, but nobody can take them out of your head lest they kill you and if you work ain't nobody going to kill you, cause you too valuable."
She was valuable, that daughter. She was Sally Hemings and her life, much of it secret, much of it filled with hard work and high dreams, has been spun into an intriguing first novel by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Her Sally Hemings was the mistress of a great man, Thomas Jefferson, and mistress in fact if not in name of a great plantation, Monticello. She was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife and she mothered seven of his children. She was a legend, a rumor, a survivor, a scandal: she was a quadroon and a slave.
In Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings comes to Paris at the age of 14 as a servant to Thomas Jefferson's daughter Polly. In Paris she becomes Jefferson's lover and returns with him to Virginia two years later, living the next 36 years as more than a paramour, as rather a common-law wife who runs Monticello and rears a second family of Jefferson children, who are allowed to "stroll" to freedom at the age of 21 or are freed in Jefferson's will.
To Chase-Riboud's credit this historical novel does not exploit in any lurid way the Hemings-Jefferson relationship; it is neither torrid nor overly romanticized. In fact Hemings and Jefferson seem a rather tidy and sensible couple, a bit formal with each other, as if the author, perhaps in her effort to avoid sensationalism, chilled the passion. However the story of these lovers is a strong one, woven from the sturdy fibers of courage and endurance and stubborn loyalty.
The author became interested in Sally Hemings after reading Fawn M. Brodie's biography "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History."
In "Sally Hemings" we see an unusual view of the third president of the United States: Jefferson the abolitionist, author of an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence which was excised by the Continental Congress) and Jefferson the man, who suffers over the irony of his personal life and his social vision.
Chase-Riboud anticipates criticism from Jeffersonian scholars for tampering with history and defaming an honored American, but the author says, "In no way does Jefferson's romantic involvement with Sally Hemings detract from his grandeur of genius. . . . The historical verity of the love affair is less important to me than its symbolic, almost mythical dimensions. . . . It is truly an allegory of the social and psychic drama of the races in America."
In many ways this novel is such an allegory as well. At its best it speaks in a fierce and firm voice, expressing in canny dialect and sometimes glistening prose the will to survive, to attain liberty, to send the next generation soaring higher than ever before. The narrative thread, however, is uneven. Too often the novel's point of view shifts from first person to third person, from Sally Hemings to her mother, her brother, her daughter, her lover, and even to a census-taker who is a infatuated with her. The time-frame shifts as well between the 1830s (the novel's "present") and the earlier years of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison. These recurring changes in voice and chronology tend to blur the book's focus and power, disrupting the narrative flow and the reader's empathy with the characters. Originally conceived as an epic poem, it is often characteristic of that form: episodic, expansive, sporadically beautiful. I am not certain that its transition to the novel form has been complete; one tends to lose the threads of story and character in the book's intricate texture.
There is controversy over the existence of Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson, but despite the novel's unevenness Barbara Chase-Riboud made me believe in her Sally Hemings and gave me a strong sense of the character's presence: no flimsy maiden, this heroine, but an important version of the gritty American pioneer woman who wills her own survival and that of her children.