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BOOK CLUB BEAT with Sherry Hemingway THE BOOK Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings Author Stephen O’Connor H ow could our Founding Father Thomas Jefferson write “all men are created equal” while maintaining nearly 600 slaves over his lifetime, keeping a slave mistress for nearly four decades, and fathering as many as six slave children by her? The controversy over Thomas Jefferson and household slave Sally Hemings has raged on for two centuries. In 1802, newspaper revelations of their relationship threatened to bring down our third president. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation acknowledged the DNA study that verified the lineage of one of their children. Now in 2016, Stephen O’Connor has created yet another furor by publishing his highly original, historical fiction novel exploring the Hemings liaison that will not go away. This book provokes extreme reactions. In Amazon’s customer ratings, 41% give it a top rating of five stars, while 45% slam it with one star. Literary critics are tossing accolades over the brilliance of O’Connor’s writing, while reader reviews are laced with profanity. In 1782, Thomas Jefferson lost his beloved wife, Martha, who left him with two children. We are told that on her deathbed, she made Jefferson promise he would never remarry, a promise he kept. Martha’s father, a slave holder, had sired four children with Martha’s mulatto nanny, Betty. One of those children was Sally Hemings. Therefore, biologically, black Sally Hemings and white Martha Jefferson were half-sisters. In this book, it is 16-year-old Sally’s resemblance in appearance and mannerisms that catches the attention of the lonely, 46-year-old Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia. The two are conflicted and invisibly together throughout the remainder of his life. In public, Sally is never acknowledged as any more than a slave. O’Connor deals with virtually unlimited points of view and conflicts using reimagined narrative, dream sequences, fantasy, historical documents, Jefferson’s writings and excerpts from Heming’s descendants’ memoirs. Frequently they are not in chronological order. This is no dry slog through history. In one dream, former First Lady Dolley Bound By Books Madison is showing Jefferson a Hollywood film version of his life, one that glides past his countless contradictions. A recent fellow traveler, a psychologist, wisely commented that “history is messy, and in today’s world of black and white, we are uncomfortable with issues that are messy.” We agreed that it gets worse with the historical past, especially when we are used to scrubbed versions that clean up the ambiguities. We might judge Jefferson less harshly in the historical context of the situation 250 years ago, but some things are never right. Jefferson knew that and his writings reflect that, but in the words of the book’s author, he had an “unrelenting inability to unite his words and his life.” O’Connor said about his research, “Eventually I came to believe that Hemings’s feelings for Jefferson might well have fallen somewhere along the spectrum between love and Stockholm syndrome.” The moral conflict of both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is a new gut punch on the horrors of slavery, even more effective when told through the eyes of people who refused to see. Midway through the book, in one particularly repetitive part, I questioned whether this story was going to have enough traction for 600 pages. Suddenly, the story took off and I was swallowed into an ending so intense that I periodically had to stop reading. With no doubts, I joined the five star brigades on Amazon. This is a scathing indictment against slavery, just packaged quite differently. You may love it or hate it, but you will not forget this book. Celebrating 23 years of good books and memorable desserts, members of Bound by Books in Morgan Hill are (front row, l. to r.) Carol Schlegel, Cindy Perry, Gwen Smith, Geri Rincon, Mary Ellen Peterson, Julie Denman; (back row, l. to r.) Nancy Whalen, Rhonda Harris, Wendy McCaw, Renée Fillice and Gretchen Merrick. Missing: Jan Bear. CLUB FAVORITES: In One Person, John Irving; Personal History, Katherine Graham; Shantaram: A Novel, Gregory David Roberts; City of Thieves: A Novel, David Benioff; The Snow Child: A Novel, Eowyn Ivey; Middlesex: A Novel, Jeffrey Eugenides; 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan, Cathy N. Davidson; Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, David Mas Masumoto. GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN JULY / AUGUST 2016 71