Beverley is still a child when he finds out who his father is; it's not something he's known all his life, even though he's known the man, but his mama had to wait to tell him until he was old enough to keep a secret. His father, you see, is Master Jefferson; his mama is a slave. Beverley's a slave, too, even though he looks white and has a president for a father. He also has a sister, Harriet, and eventually, two little brothers, Maddy and Eston. Their lives are all easier than are those of fellow slaves, and they all grow up knowing that they'll be freed when they turn 21. Some of them, Beverley, Harriet, maybe even baby Eston, will be able to pass for white, then, and they'll disappear into white society; they'll never see their mother again.
So this is that story. A fictionalized account, of course, but the author says in the notes in the end that she wrote nothing here that could not have been true. Madison and Eston both left written accounts of their lives when they died, and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's research is evident in the rich historical detail. And it's pretty amazing. It's a trial, reading this book. Thomas Jefferson, a great man, a man who helped shape our country, a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and owned his own children--owned them, and treated them as, sure, well-treated slaves, but slaves. His conscience didn't compel him to free them as children, and didn't compel him ever to free their mother, his mistress. And that's a fact.
What this book does, and does so very, very well, is that it makes slavery feel real. It was, I know that. But what you know and what you can imagine are two very different things, and the slavery of record--the terrible slavery full of desperation and fear and families being sold apart and people being whipped to death--it's too terrible for me to imagine. These children, though, don't have terrible lives. They see a whipping or two, but they're never beaten themselves. They're not afraid of being sold. They aren't worked--well, they work, but not really very hard. They have bright futures, so they're never desperate, never looking to run. They have comfortable, safe lives. But they're not free, and that's. Not something you read about, often. That's something that's horrible, but horrible within imagining.
And then, with the third point of view, Peter, a fellow slave and friend of the Jefferson's sons, but one with no blood connection to the Jefferson's, Ms. Bradley pulls out the rug from under you. There's no safety for him. No comfort. No promise of freedom. It's a sneaky, dirty trick, easing you into a mind frame of belief, of imagining and seeing it as real, and then making it as horrible as you already knew it was. And it's extremely effective.
And I cried my way through the author's note, and I cried long past that, because oh my God, that happened. Maybe not exactly that to those exact people, and maybe they didn't feel exactly that way about them, but it all happened, and it happened to millions of people. And I knew it, but I didn't know it in the same way, before.