September 15, 2017
America’s First Daughter
by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
My bookish and dear friend Cheryl recently recommended this book to me knowing I love histfic. She appreciated its readability, the rich language, and the way the sentences were constructed….causing the story to flow easily from one thought or experience to the next. She mentioned that she liked exploring characters and events about which she had been aware but didn’t fully understand the context….throughout the narrative, Thomas Jefferson became a person for her. Finally, she learned more about the culture of slaves and slave owners from both perspectives. SOLD! I downloaded it to my Kindle that afternoon!
Sacrifice … Devotion … Hardship … Privilege … Grit
Genre/category: historical fiction, biographical
A fast paced read, this well researched novel draws from thousands of letters and original sources as it tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph. Patsy shares her father’s devotion to their country and becomes his partner, protector, and loyal companion after the death of her mother. As a young girl she travels with him to Paris when he becomes the American minister to France, and it is here she eventually learns of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave girl about her own age. According to the authors, it’s during these Paris years that Patsy falls in love with William Short, her father’s assistant and protégé who is an abolitionist and aspiring diplomat. Patsy is torn between love, principles, and family loyalty and questions whether she can be married to Tom and remain devoted to her father. This is a story of sacrifice and grit as Patsy tirelessly protects her father’s reputation and supports him as he guides and leads the nation he helped found.
Amazon Rating (September): 4.6 Stars
If you’re looking for a highly readable narrative (I enjoyed the first person point of view) and an engaging book club selection because of its various themes, this might be an excellent choice! After my mother read it, we discussed it at length. My review will consist of highlighting a few intriguing themes:
women’s lack of voice or choice/oppression of women
“And now I’d given up everything I’d ever dared to want for myself.
The convent. My dearest friends. William.“
My inner feminist was raging during most of this story! It’s amazing to be transported back in time when women didn’t have a voice or certain rights or choices that we take for granted today (e.g. the father could simply decide to take the children if he were angry at his wife and sometimes this fact scared Patsy into submission). In addition, the lack of birth control certainly took a toll on women (Patsy had 11 children). To protect herself from having to bear more children, she considered arranging a mistress for her husband! Furthermore, if some men abused their wives, the women had very little protection or recourse because it was a man’s right to run his family as he thought was right. It’s concerning to realize that women in some countries today don’t have the rights and protection that we have come to expect in this country. Another aspect of this theme is the idea that one avenue for women to find success, influence, or importance for themselves was to work under the umbrella of men in the family (a father or husband). Women could be influential as contributors but were not usually found driving agendas or enterprises of their own. As the story progressed, Patsy was able to exercise some voice: “My hand fell away from William’s grasp, and my voice no longer wavered. ‘I’m going to Virginia with my father, so if you love me, you’ll wait for me a little longer.’ ” A highlight is that Patsy did have two strong female mentors in Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison. The latter boldly stating: “There is only one secret to anything,” Dolley asserted, “and that’s the power we all have in forming our own destinies.”
Even though the Jefferson family suffered from bouts of poverty and misfortune, they were still speaking and acting from a position of privilege. In addition to having resources and support, their privilege also gave them the benefit of the doubt when their honor was at stake. Throughout the story, we explore inequality as it affects women, slaves, and the poor (non property owners).
father/daughter loyalty and devotion to family
Patsy’s relationship with her father, her loyalty and devotion, affected every relationship she had and heavily influenced all the major events in her life. It was a sad thread throughout the story that a child would feel so obligated to take on the burden of her father’s grief and well-being. Even though Patsy dearly loved her father, I didn’t view the relationship as mutually beneficial. From Patsy’s perspective it was sacrificial and duty bound; whereas, from Jefferson’s angle it was often controlling, manipulative, needy, selfish, and sometimes deceptive. Patsy did adopt some of her father’s deceptiveness however when she lied under oath in one circumstance (to protect family) and then manipulated other circumstances to keep her husband out of the military. Finally, it was interesting to read about the sense of duty that grown children felt to care for their siblings (even as adults) when parents were gone. I wonder how many families today strongly hold that value.
One can identify several examples of sacrifice from multiple individuals throughout the story. Patsy definitely sacrificed over and over for her father and for the nation, her father sacrificed for the nation, Sally sacrificed the disclosure of her real relationship with Jefferson for his reputation, children sacrificed their own childhood to care for younger siblings, etc.
early stances on slavery
“Those slaves we knew, we saw their faces every day.
The idea of selling them was barbarous.”
It seems to this reader that keeping individuals as slaves must have seemed barbarous from the slaves’ point of view! Throughout the story, I wished that we could have heard from the perspective of Sally Hemings (and other slaves). So many of my recent historical fiction reads have been from the slaves’ perspective that I found myself missing that voice in this narrative. It was interesting that Patsy, even though she shared some of William’s abolitionist thinking, chose to buy her own slaves back in an act of compassion rather than free them or relinquish them to a worse future in the Deep South. Also astounding to modern-day readers is that Patsy couldn’t understand why the family slaves would want to be free since they were treated so well with the Jefferson family. The following justification for keeping Sally as a slave is offered:
“Someone with lighter skin she meant. Someone who behaved more like a servant so as to uphold the polite fiction of it all. Someone in the family.”
Patsy Jefferson exemplifies grit and symbolizes the mindset of other women of the time as well. She expresses the following thoughts: “From tattered flags and uniforms to friendships strained to the brink, the women of my country had always been the menders to all things torn asunder. But now we’d do more than patch with needle and thread. We’d have to weave together a whole tapestry of American life with nothing but our own hands, our own crops, and our own ingenuity. And I would prove myself able to the task.”
The deathbed promise that Mrs. Jefferson exacted from Thomas Jefferson and Patsy affected the rest of their lives. This promise was not taken lightly and their duty to keep it was admirable. It would be interesting to explore if in our modern times, the bereaved would share this profound sense of obligation or if this is an old-fashioned value.
loyalty/devotion to country
A concern at the center of the Jefferson family’s decision-making was the welfare of the new nation. Patsy valued and supported her father’s efforts on behalf of the country, even agreeing to act as First Lady when Thomas Jefferson was elected President. I wonder what we are prepared to sacrifice for our country.
trials, triumphs, failures of a family
Readers are treated to an honest look at the Jefferson family, their successes, struggles, fears, flaws, and failures. In my opinion, one failure was Jefferson’s reluctance to weigh in on the abolitionist arguments and sentiments, preferring to leave that discussion to the next generation. However, he was a brilliant thinker and writer and I think the country might have benefited from his insightful reflections. It seemed that it was a concern for his own reputation that made it difficult for him to reconcile his own personal use of slaves when challenged with the ideas of abolition. This was an issue he chose to ignore and I lost respect for that. Thomas Jefferson had a paralysis when it came to slavery and the author compared it to handling a wolf:
“He couldn’t safely hold it or safely let it go.”
Jefferson’s children with Sally had to run away rather than be freed by him which must have grieved Sally. However, throughout the story, I think the reader grows to appreciate that the largest issues are complex for multiple reasons and are never black and white.
saving face/a perfect image/honor
One of the most important values of the day was honor and projecting a perfect image of self and the family. The slaves helped preserve that image as did extended family and relatives. In fact, protecting Jefferson’s reputation and image seemed to occupy a great deal of time in the story. It seems that without 24/7 media coverage, one had a much better chance of keeping secrets. What do you consider our culture’s greatest value?
In Virginia it wasn’t merely a matter of masculine pride–it was a matter of survival. Every loan for the farm, every advance of credit for seeds and foodstuffs, every public office and proposal of marriage depended on honor. Men would fight and die for it. And women would lie for it.”
imperfect people as leaders
Can imperfect people be good leaders and can they make important contributions to their country? Throughout the story we gain an understanding of Jefferson’s faults and flaws. This is where I wish the authors had done more to point out his unique contributions, especially because so much sacrifice from family members was required.
My IRL book club is discussing this book in October and I look forward to an interesting discussion!
My overall rating 5 stars (actually 4.5 rounded up to 5 on Goodreads)
Highly recommended for readers who enjoy an engaging, fast paced historical fiction story with relevant discussable themes.
Some readers express concern about the fictionalization of the Patsy Jefferson/William Short romance. In the afterward, the authors discuss their reasons for including the romantic relationship. Even though there is a lack of letters that support the connection, the authors cite the amount of circumstantial evidence and widely accepted assumptions as their justification. I thought the romantic drama helped add interest to the entire story, and it was an intrigue that affected many of the events throughout her life. After all, it is historical fiction and I expect that some aspects might be more fictionalized than others. It did not affect my enjoyment of the story.
One area in which I did have a small reservation is the lack of information about the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson. I realize that this was Patsy’s story; however, if one lacked historical background regarding the accomplishments of the founding fathers, I think that reader would wonder why Jefferson is a celebrated founder. Here, we are certainly made aware of his flaws. I think in light of Patsy’s sacrifice it would have been helpful to know more specifically what this allowed her father to do for the country. This is not a reservation about what was included, rather it stems from a desire to know more.
Meet the Authors: Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Stephanie Dray is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal & USA Today bestselling author of historical women’s fiction. Her award-winning work has been translated into eight languages and tops lists for the most anticipated reads of the year. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer and a teacher. Now she lives near the nation’s capital with her husband, cats, and history books.
A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction, Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction. She is the author of AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER and MY DEAR HAMILTON, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters. http://www.LauraKamoie.com
Sometimes if readers have enjoyed a story, they might want to read a similar selection. Abigail Adams makes an appearance in America’s First Daughter. While I have not read Dearest Friend by Lynne Withey, my mother highly recommends this book about Abigail Adams. It’s on my TBR.
More Information Here
Happy Reading Everyone!
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~Rainer Maria Rilke
Next week I’m thrilled to review Castle of Water by Dane Hucklebridge if you’d like to “buddy read.” It was unputdownable!
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If you’ve read or think you might want to read America’s First Daughter, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section about the various themes.