I cannot say enough about America’s First Daughter. As I was just beginning to read it, I looked at my sister and said, “This is the most well-written book I have read in…” I couldn’t remember when. Usually, the highest compliment I give a book is that it was a page-turner, but I need to take just a moment to honor the craft that Kamoie and Dray put to use in this book. The words flowed like honey. The characters sparkled. The descriptions drew you into the time period. The emotions were beautifully displayed. The scenes were well-chosen. Your trust in the authors is complete.
Now, about the actual story. I can’t say it better than Erika Robuck did in her great quote which is on the back of the book: “Not since Gone with the Wind has a single-volume family saga so brilliantly portrayed the triumphs, trials, and sins of a family in the American South.” That is a powerful appraisal. Full disclosure: I love Revolutionary and Early Republic history, I love Thomas Jefferson, and I love the American South. But I think you would like this book even if you liked none of those things.
Now, don’t go into it expecting a traditional historical romance. There is romance, and it is beautifully done. But it isn’t neat, isn’t always happy, and it doesn’t necessarily leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. And there’s a lot more than just romance. I would liken this book to Nancy Moser’s fabulous Washington’s Lady, although that book is a little easier to swallow for its sweet, real-life affection between George and Martha. But the books are similar in that they don’t allow you to feel sheltered from the hardships that, historically, men and women faced. People die. Marriages break. People live in despair. And life goes on. I hope I haven’t scared you away because this book is well-worth your time. I just wanted to make sure you were buckled up for the ride!
We follow Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph from childhood through her father’s death. She was an amazing, flawed, strong woman, and it was a joy to view the world through her eyes.
I consider that this book has four great triumphs and three minor downsides.
One triumph is its portrayal of Patsy’s husband, Thomas “Tom” Mann Randolph. I haven’t seen such a deep, honest, and rich psychological study of a character in fiction perhaps ever. The authors “go there” with Tom in ways which have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, cringing, hating, and yet, remarkably, still feeling sympathy.
Another triumph is Sally Hemings. What an amazing woman! We can’t know what her relationship with Patsy was like, but this felt spot-on. The choices she made, her relationship with Jefferson, and her status at Monticello were on point based on my research. But to give her a personality, a character based off what we do know about her – that gave the book real value.
Another value of this book is rescuing William Short from disappearing into the abyss of history. He was a remarkable, radical figure which has hitherto been rather lost to American knowledge.
The last triumph of this book is perhaps its greatest. I think a lot of historical novelists are afraid to tell the truth as seen from their characters’ eyes. I have felt those pressures: do I say what my character in this era really would’ve thought or modernize their point of view to what we think today so that no one feels uncomfortable? The fact of the matter is that we as historical novelists are dealing with people who lived sometimes hundreds of years ago, who have their own set of experiences and beliefs that are often quite different from ours. This book fearlessly explores that dynamic, dealing with hard topics empathetically and respectfully through Patsy’s eyes while not masking her flaws or the era’s. In this book, we see the truth about history and human weakness and the effects of sin. We see joy and love and hope, too. We see the truth, ugly and beautiful.
Now for my minor grievances (no book review about Jefferson would be complete without a listing of grievances, would it?).
One is that the character of Thomas Jefferson himself often didn’t feel fully fleshed out. For Patsy’s youth we really dig into his psyche, but after that, he kind of felt like a character to fill a chair at the table. I wish he had been a little more dynamic so that we could understand Patsy’s utter devotion and sense of responsibility. Related is another point about Jefferson, which is not a criticism, but a caution. One danger, I think, in seeing things through Patsy’s eyes is that readers might walk away feeling like they know the man Jefferson, but I don’t think that was the purpose of this book. Everything dealing with him was done respectfully and accurately, but since we have only Patsy’s perspective, and since she is no different from anyone else in that she always worried her loved ones weren’t quite capable without her, we don’t get the full impression. For that full impression, and for a non-fiction which reads as fast as good fiction, I would highly recommend Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power.
Another thing, which is totally unimportant, is that I don’t think the portrayal of James and Dolley Madison was the best. That was not the focus, and you can overlook it.
Finally, this book took forever to finish. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to condense an entire life, and such a life, into one volume, but it was really long. It is actually larger than it looks because the pages are quite thin and full. It was also emotionally and historically heavy, which is really the only explanation for why it took me three times as long to read a book that was beautifully written and held my interest. I was ready for it to be over, but I certainly didn’t feel like I wasted my time. It was, on the whole, a very moving experience.
Five out of five stars, which I don’t give lightly. Now go read it!