The Book Mark

Books that make the grade.

Tag Archives: slavery

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings

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Many people would break out into a cold sweat if handed a 600+ page book to read. When I saw Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings (A) by Stephen O’Connor at the library my heart started to race with excitement. Having recently read America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laurie Kamoie, my curiosity was peaked by the subject. What would O’Connor write differently than Dray and Kamoie? What more could I learn about Sally Hemmings and her life with Thomas Jefferson?

O’Connor wrote in his Author’s Note that “he leapt straight into writing, composing scenes entirely out of chronological order and switching randomly between realism, fabulism, essay, prose poetry and quotation”. His goal was to compose a novel that would depict Jefferson and Hemmings in “fresh and surpising ways”. O’Connor was extremely successful. His delivery was such that I honestly feel like I know Sally Hemmings. To date, there isn’t much known about her but O’Connor made her real, believable and honest. He incorporated the facts about Jefferson’s life into every day life at Monticello both political and private. While it was a reach for me to understand some of his “fabulism”, I enjoyed his unique approaches ie, subway scenes, a biographical movie and character interviews.

Maybe Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings isn’t for the average reader but those who enjoy historical fiction will devour it. I honestly read 600 pages in four days. I didn’t want it to end. If you will only tolerate factual accountings then this isn’t the book for you. However, if you approach this novel with an open mind and curiosity you will not be disappointed. Perhaps a more accurate title for this book should be “Stephen O’Connor’s Imagines Thomas Jefferson Dreaming of Sally Hemmings.

Property

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Property (B) by Valerie Martin was winner of the Orange Prize the prize awarded to new women writers. A friend recommended this book to me after my recent trip to New Orleans a city filled with history.

The narrator, Manon, was born and raised in New Orleans prior to the Civil War. Her father was a prominent plantation owner who of course owned slaves. Upon her marriage, Manon was given one particular slave to attend her in her new home. Sarah, Manon’s “property”, quickly became the “property” of her new husband and his personal mistress. Manon detested him and the children born to Sarah.

I have read many accounts of slavery, slave owners and plantation life. While I did not agree with Manon’s politics regarding slavery it was interesting to regard it from a woman’s point of view. Property is a quick read but the images portrayed throughout are not easy to forget.

Not quite sure who I would recommend it to. Perhaps someone like myself who has read many other versions of this same story. The point of view here is different and interesting.

 

The Invention of Wings

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This month my book club will be reading The Invention of Wings (B) by Sue Monk Kidd.  The first book we every read was The Secret Life of Bees so I was very excited to be reading Kidd again ten years later. Sadly, I feel her new book doesn’t stand up well in comparison to the first. 

Sarah Grimke is a historical figure. She was a staunch abolitionist and spoke for woman’s rights long before it was common to do so. Kidd challenged herself to deliver a truthful and accurate story. She balances the novel with the fictional character of Handful a slave that worked for the Grimke family.

Narrated in both their voices in alternating chapters, the reader understands that slavery comes in many forms. Handful is an enslaved black woman and Sarah is held bound to the dictates of her family and class. The Invention of Wings is the journey both women take to become their “true” selves.  

As in The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd’s female characters are strong and powerful women able to stay determined in the face of adversities. She remained true to the historical accounting of Sarah Grimke and took just a few liberties with the truth. She was accurate too with her fictional characterization of slavery through the portrayal of Handful.

I truly appreciate the attention to detail Kidd delivers. Her intense research was obvious in the telling.  I thought Handful was a brilliant portrayal of an enslaved woman.  The reader can feel slavery through her. To this end, The Invention of Wings is an incredible story. However, for me, it was a bit too heavy and drawn out.  In an attempt to be truthful and complete, Kidd brought too much to the book. It became at times laborious. I found the ending extremely abrupt. Where it would have been appropriate to have more she gave less.

It will be a good book discussion, as all our discussions are. After ten years, I am still excited for our meetings. The Invention of Wings will definitely provide us with another lively and invigorating debate.