Well, I finally finished it. It being Annette Gordon-Reed's exhaustive work The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
First, let me say--the premise of the work is fascinating and most worthy. Using primary sources, Gordon-Reed (G-R) explores the life and times of one extended family enslaved and owned by Thomas Jefferson. G-R goes further and proves decisively that Thomas Jefferson made one member of the Hemings' family--Sally--his mistress and, with her, fathered four children who lived to become adults.
So, why my "finally finished it" comment? You need a bit of history on my reading habits. I was an English literature major in college, both undergraduate and graduate. So, that meant lots, make that LOTS, of reading. And my first job, fresh out of graduate school, was returning to my college alma mater to teach literature--more reading. When I left that job, after 8 years, I vowed that I would never again spend time reading something that I was not enjoying.
This vow was accompanied by a full measure of guilt--stop reading a book? Unthinkable. Having been schooled to read so as to a) pass the exam, or b) analyze in class, or c) write the exam, I simply felt duty bound to read every book I started. And, for the most part, even after I stopped teaching, I tended to finish books I began reading.
The day finally came when I finished a book and suddenly realized--I have been duped. I read a book the whole way through, and I simply did NOT enjoy it. I should have quit. Truth is, I kept expecting SOMETHING to happen in the book. The book in question was Helen Hooven Santmyer's And Ladies of the Club. On the off chance you might be curious and decide you want to read it--don't. I have just saved you from 1,400 pages of NOTHING.
As I said, I kept expecting something to happen--but after 1,400 pages I realized that nothing did. And I was so put out at myself for not dropping the book part way through, that I renewed my vow.
So, now The Hemingses of Monticello. I finished this book. Oh, there were times that I felt like stopping. Why didn't I? Well, I had asked for the book as a Christmas present, for one thing. And I felt as though I would be ungrateful. I also recognized the importance of the subject of the book, evaluating people who were slaves and considering them on their merits. G-R has done fantastic historical research to recreate their lives.
You just know there is a "but"--don't you?
When I was about half way through the book, I told my husband about my frustrations with the author's style. As it happened, we were out at breakfast in a local diner. Seating there is not really private, and next to us sat a man, eating breakfast by himself. He obviously overheard my description. I said that G-R was a professor at one of the Ivy League schools. . .hhmm, Yale maybe? Well, the lone diner piped up--University of Rutgers. It turns out, he also taught there--though he said he had not met G-R. Small world. I hope he didn't rush back to campus, look her up, and say--a woman in a diner doesn't like your writing style, she thinks you need an editor.
So, here's my "but." To convey the concepts of what it was like to live as slaves, deprived of freedom, subject to the whims of masters--even those who were kindly, as Jefferson was--G-R tells you what it was like. Then, on the off-chance you didn't get it, she tells you again. And, for good measure, yet again.
If I could talk to a book, and have the message transmitted magically to the author--I would have said: I get it! Slavery was terrible. It was demeaning. It was dehumanizing. It is a stain on human history. I really do get it.
There were many interesting details in the work, lest you think I didn't learn anything from it. First, Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson, was the half sister of Jefferson's wife Martha. WOW! That means Martha's father, John Wayles, also fathered Sally. Second, Sally Hemings was sent to be with Jefferson in Paris, when at the time she was fourteen years old. Their nearly 40 year relationship began in Paris. When Jefferson was due to return home, apparently, Sally Hemings--and her brother who was also there--contemplated staying there. France did not have slavery so they could have become free people. Sally's son, years after, indicated that the reason she did return with Jefferson is that she was pregnant with her first child, and she wrung from Jefferson a promise to free their children.
Again, WOW! The crafter of our Declaration of Independence fathered children who by virtue of their births would be slaves. And, he had to be made to promise to free his own children--not upon birth, mind, but upon reaching majority.
So much for "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
OK--so, in totality, it was a good book to read. Sometimes it pays off to keep on slogging.