America’s First Daughter #bookreview #historicalfiction

America’s First Daughter (Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie) is written from the point of view of Martha Jefferson Randolph, the only child of Thomas Jefferson to survive beyond young adulthood. Patsy, as she was called in her family, grew up fast and became her father’s fiercest protector. Through her eyes, we see the human side of Thomas Jefferson: though larger than life to the public, he grieved deeply after the death of his wife. He could be a loving father, but also an indifferent one. He continued public service after the Revolution with a great deal of reluctance, preferring his life as a Virginia farmer, but putting his own needs aside for the greater good.

The book is a novel, but the authors took great pains to research Patsy’s life, and the fictionalization was done with careful thought. For example, in the book Patsy’s first and only true love is William Short, an aide to her father. There is no definitive evidence she carried the torch for Short, but the authors found enough evidence of the possibility to make it an important part of the book.

I struggled to like Patsy, but I understood how her world was vastly different from mine. She disapproved of her father’s relationship with Sally Hemings but helped cover it up (again, possibly fictionalized). Her deepest concern was for her father’s legacy, and that led her at times to some unsavory behavior. I also struggled with the prevailing notion that appearances were important, which led to Jefferson’s substantial overspending to maintain Monticello for endless guests, leaving the family in constant debt.

Yet I found Patsy compelling, and Sally Hemings, who remains mysterious and reserved, emerges as a powerful character. The authors do not attempt to justify Jefferson’s hypocrisy as a champion of freedom who maintained a stable of slaves. What we would see now as rape and child molestation was, at the time, a fairly normal occurrence. One hopes we have made some progress!

It’s exciting to read and understand more about the women of this time period. America’s First Daughter is a great story of what it might have been like to be the daughter of such a famous man, yet to know the hardship and difficulty of being a woman in this time period.

The authors’ notes at the end of the book are compelling and add a great deal to the text. I don’t often pay a lot of attention to these, but in this case it’s worth your while to learn more about fact vs. fiction and their own challenges with Patsy and her father. In the end, I highly recommend this book. It will take you a while to get through, but it’s worth it.

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