The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

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Overview

The Hemingses of Monticello is Annette Gordon-Reed's "riveting history" of the Hemings family, whose story comes to life in this researched and moving work. Gordon-Reed unearths startling new information about the Hemingses, Jefferson, and his white family. Although the book presents a detailed portrait of Sarah Hemings, who bore seven children by Jefferson over the course of their thirty-eight-year liaison, The Hemingses of Monticello tells more than the story of her life with Jefferson and their children. The Hemingses as a whole take their rightful place in the narrative of the family's extraordinary engagement with one of history's most important figures.

2009 Pulitzer Prize in History Winner!

2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction Winner

2009 George Washington Book Prize Winner

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  • Annette Gordon-Reed
    Annette Gordon-Reed  

Editorial Reviews

James Smethurst - The Boston Globe
“The Hemingses of Monticello makes a powerful argument for the historical significance of the Hemings family not only for its engagement with a principal architect of the early Republic, but also for the ways the family embodies the complexities and contradictions of slavery in the United States. ”
Judith Chettle - Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Gordon-Reed has written not only a fair-minded and, where appropriate, critical account of Jefferson's behavior, but also an affecting account of slavery's toll. Slaves bore the brunt, but whites, even the best and brightest, were as a consequence morally maimed. This is an important book.”
Gordon S. Wood - The New Republic
“In her new book Gordon-Reed has not abandoned her incisive legal approach to evidence, but here she has essentially become a historian, and a superb one. She has set out to do what she thinks professional historians should have been doing all along. With great historical imagination, she has done far more than put together a convincing case for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. She has also reconstructed the complicated and intimate relations between black and white families in And perhaps most important, she has uncovered the many expressions of humanity by both blacks and whites existing within a fundamentally inhumane institution.”
Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan - New York Review of Books
“[M]arks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation.”
François Furstenberg - Slate
“An astonishing feat of historical re-creation.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Gordon-Reed has written not only a fair-minded and, where appropriate, critical account of Jefferson's behavior, but also an affecting account of slavery's toll. Slaves bore the brunt, but whites, even the best and brightest, were as a consequence morally maimed. This is an important book.— Judith Chettle
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Hemings and her extended family receive a worthy biography.”
The Tennessean
“Not since Fawn Brodie's masterwork biography has there been a better depiction of Thomas Jefferson's life at Monticello than Gordon-Reed's story of the Hemings family. This is American history at its best.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and law professor, is a doorstop corrective to early American history, painting a composite portrait of a family that stood at the wellspring of the Jefferson, slave Sally Hemings, their children and kin fascinate and surprise. ”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Because of Gordon-Reed, Hemings and her ancestors and descendants achieve full personhood. For that, the author deserves praise and lots of readers.”
Bookpage
“The Hemingses of Monticello explores a thorny but important chapter in American history with distinction and clarity, offering a poignant, if also often ugly, chronicle of slavery, secrecy and family tension. ”
Dallas Morning News
“An epic saga of the Hemings family, whose bloodline has been mixed with that of Thomas Jefferson since our third president took slave Sally Hemings as a mistress.”
Newsweek
“As Gordon-Reed writes, our reaction to the idea that Jefferson, a lifelong proponent of emancipation, could own slaves and sustain an intimate relationship with a woman who was not only his property but his dead wife's half-sister, and that Hemings could participate in the relationship, makes up "the very complex American response to matters involving not only slavery but even more particularly race and gender."”
New York Review of Books
[M]arks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation.— Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan
Slate
An astonishing feat of historical re-creation. — Francois Furstenberg
The Boston Globe
The Hemingses of Monticello makes a powerful argument for the historical significance of the Hemings family not only for its engagement with a principal architect of the early Republic, but also for the ways the family embodies the complexities and contradictions of slavery in the United States. — James Smethurst
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“As the title suggests, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family brings an entire family out of the historic shadows that have been cast across Jefferson’s famous Virginia home. The book succeeds on this score by showing how generations of Hemingses labored at Monticello. It offers a stunning illustration of the tragedy that slavery could wreak. ”
The New Republic
In her new book Gordon-Reed has not abandoned her incisive legal approach to evidence, but here she has essentially become a historian, and a superb one. She has set out to do what she thinks professional historians should have been doing all along. With great historical imagination, she has done far more than put together a convincing case for the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. She has also reconstructed the complicated and intimate relations between black and white families in And perhaps most important, she has uncovered the many expressions of humanity by both blacks and whites existing within a fundamentally inhumane institution. — Gordon S. Wood
San Diego Union-Tribune
“The Hemingses of Monticello may stir old passions by taking everything that is documented and then pushing the tale further. meditation on the fluid and conditional nature of something many Americans have regarded as fixed: our individual racial heritage.Were the children of Jefferson and Hemings white or black? Both? Neither? In antebellum Virginia, the answers to those questions meant freedom or bondage. In our country, will there ever come a day when those answers mean nothing? ”
Fergus M. Bordewich
&#8230monumental and original…Liberating the woman known to Jefferson's smirking enemies as "dusky Sally" from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers…In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex. It's also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves' lives and the nature of the choices they had to make-when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work. 37 illus. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This multigenerational saga traces mixed-race bloodlines that American history has long refused fully to acknowledge. Blending biography, genealogy, and history, Gordon-Reed (history, Rutgers Univ.; law, New York Law Sch.; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy) brings to life the family from which Sally Hemings (1773-1835) came and the family that she and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) created. Sally bore five surviving children for the man who penned the Declaration of Independence and later became the new nation's third president. In a three-part, 30-chapter tour de force through voluminous primary and secondary sources, including Jefferson family correspondence, Gordon-Reed reconstructs not simply the private life and estate of an American demigod but reveals much of the characteristic structure and style of early Virginia society and the slavery that made possible much of the Old Dominion's position and pleasure. Moreover, she ushers forth slaves from the usual shadows of historical obscurity to show them as individuals and families with multifaceted lives. This is a masterpiece brimming with decades of dedicated research and dexterous writing. It is essential for any collection on U.S. history, Colonial America, Virginia, slavery, or miscegenation. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
—Thomas J. Davis

Kirkus Reviews
The unusual history of an enslaved family whose destiny was shaped over the course of four decades by Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed (Law/New York Law School, History/Rutgers Univ.; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 1997, etc.) grudgingly comes to a sympathetic view of Jefferson, who inherited the mixed-race Hemings family when he married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. By 1784, he was a widower living in Paris as head of the American commission, accompanied by manservant James Hemings, whom Jefferson took along so he could receive training as a French chef. In 1787, James's 14-year-old sister Sally came to Paris with Jefferson's daughter Polly; sometime during the French sojourn, she became her master's mistress. Back in Virginia, Jefferson installed Sally in a fairly pampered life at Monticello; he sired her numerous children and emancipated them upon his death in 1826. The author painstakingly sifts through the evidence about their relationship and examines the convoluted attitudes that influenced Jefferson's behavior. Sally's white father was also Martha Jefferson's father; Jefferson's wife and his slave mistress were half-sisters who owed their radically different destinies to the Anglo-Virginian system of bondage. The colonists had adopted the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem (you were what your mother was) rather than the English rule (you were what your father was). By the perverse logic of this system, any drop of white blood ameliorated the work slaves were assigned and their chances of being freed. Jefferson encouraged James Hemings and his brother Robert to learn skills and to move freely in the world. There is no clue in the life of this intertwined family that Gordon-Reeddoes not minutely examine for its most subtle significance. She concludes that Jefferson was above all a most private man, who espoused abhorrent racial theories in public but behaved relatively well (by the standards of the era) toward his own slaves. Ponderous but sagacious and ultimately rewarding.
Fergus Bordewich - Washington Post
“A monumental and original book.”
John Hope Franklin
“This work catapults Gordon-Reed into the very first rank of historians of slavery.”
Gordon Wood - The New Republic
“[A] very important and powerfully argued history of the Hemings family.... [Gordon-Reed] has the imagination and talent of an expert historian.”
Edmund S. Morgan
“[A] brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed's achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers.”
Sanford D. Horwitt - San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] deeply researched, often gripping story.... Gordon-Reed has given us an important story that is ultimately about the timeless quest for justice and human dignity.”
Scott McLemee - Seattle Times
“Hunting down every tiny thread of evidence about the family, Gordon-Reed has created a powerful alternative vision of the past... [and] created a monument to lives lived under the shadow of a vicious institution. For the first time, Jefferson is one part of the Hemingses' story, rather than vice versa.”
Joseph J. Ellis
“Thomas Jefferson often described his slaves at Monticello as 'my family.' Annette Gordon-Reed has taken that description seriously. Surely more seriously than Jefferson ever intended! The result... is the most comprehensive account of one slave family ever written. It is not a pretty story, but it is poignant beyond belief. And it demonstrates conclusively that we must put aside Gone With the Wind forever and begin to study William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!”
From the Publisher
"[Listeners] will find it absorbing." —-The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393064773
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/29/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 289,906
  • Product dimensions: 9.52 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Chronology of the Hemings Family 11

Preface 15

Introduction 21

Pt. I Origins

1 Young Elizabeth's World 37

2 John Wayles: The Immigrant 57

3 The Children of No One 77

4 Thomas Jefferson 91

5 The First Monticello 111

6 In the Home of a Revolutionary 131

Pt. II The Vaunted Scene of Europe

7 "A Particular Purpose" 153

8 James Hemings: The Provincial Abroad 169

9 "Isabel Or Sally Will Come" 191

10 Dr. Sutton 209

11 The Rhythms of the City 224

12 The Eve of Revolution 249

13 "During That Time" 264

14 Sarah Hemings: The Fatherless Girl in a Patriarchal Society 290

15 The Teenagers and the Woman 308

16 'His Promises, on Which She Implicitly Relied" 326

17 "The Treaty" and "Did They Love Each Other?" 353

18 The Return 376

Pt. III On the Mountain

19 Hello and Goodbye 397

20 Equillibrium 414

21 The Brothers 437

22 Philadelphia 455

23 Exodus 480

24 The Second Monticello 504

25 Into the Future, Echoes from the Past 521

26 The Ocean of Life 540

27 The Public World and the Private Domain 562

28 "Measurably Happy": The Children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings 586

29 Retirement for One, Not for All 606

30 Endings and Beginnings 629

Epilogue 655

Acknowledgments 663

Notes 669

Selected Bibliography 737

Index 755

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 110 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 110 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2009

    Wonderful topic but...

    The book's topic is what drew me to it. It is well researched however even the author states at times there was very little true data to go on. Therefore, I think the author got carried away with too much personal opinion, speculation, and even became too repetitive (as a sad example, how many times in one chapter did the author need to tell us that rape of slaves by their masters was an issue). She also started to build a case for one conclusion going on and on for pages, only then to change her point of view to something else with one paragraph! I found myself skimming paragraphs looking for her to get back to what was known and not opinion (the later chapters were better than the first half). This book would have been much more effective had it stuck with the facts and a historical analysis; there were far to few facts for this book to be over 600 pages! The author should have stayed focused on the factual pieces which would have resulted in a shorter yet more impactful story of the Hemings family.
    As a side note, given all the common names in the Jefferson-Hemings-Wayland family, it could have been helpful to provide a visual of the family tree each chapter- build the family as you go along with the subsequent chapters. Even though the family tree is at the front and back of the book, it became difficult to find whom the author was talking about at times given the common names/ nicknames. The author really wasn't helpful in this regard often jumping from one name/nickname to another as she went along. For example in chapter 28 the author introduces Jefferson's white grandson as Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In the following paragraph she starts talking about "Jeff" but didn't directly connect "Jeff" as the nickname of Thomas Jefferson Randolph.

    I am glad I read this book (slow reading and all) but I am disappointed at how the rare details were put together. Reader beware.

    13 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2008

    Slow going, but, give it a chance

    I read this about a month ago, and, it was a real slow go for me, which surprised me because, usually, I can plow through something I'm interested in in a couple of days, max, and this took me a bit over a week. I suppose in part, due to the academic nature of the writing, but, give it a go, it's well worth it, especially if you find historical writings interesting.<BR/><BR/>Ms Gordon-Reed is a very good writer, and, will draw you into the subject material. I do feel like she's a bit biased towards the Hemings family, and against the Jeffersons and Wayleses, but, that's just the impression that I get. Overall, it is a good read, and, interesting, and, you'll get a pretty good impression of living in the late 1700's-early 1800's in Virginia, and in the United States, and you'll learn a bit of how France saw things during that time that will surprise you.

    12 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2008

    I really disliked this book....

    You can take all of the actual facts found in this book and put them on a total of 5 pages. The rest of it is speculation on the part of the author. If you don't have enough facts to fill a book, don't fill it with questions and suggestions. I love history when there is actually enough to read about. This book sheds no factual light on Sally Hemmings daily life, just a lot of guessing by the author.

    11 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2009

    THIS IS NOT A SLOW READ OR BIASED

    This work by Annette Gordon-Reed is riveting from the momement you start. If you are interested in the slave families of TJ or what the typical life during this time was like for slaves (or not so typical for the Hemingses), then this book will shed light on many things scholarship up until now doesn't talk about.<BR/><BR/>And as for it being biased, she simply states the disgusting facts of Slavery, period. How it was and how it was used against the people it enslaved. There is no unbiased way of getting around the ugly face of this 'peculiar institution'.

    9 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2009

    The Hemingses of Monticello

    The story telling makes the families and individuals seem real, not a dry characters in a history book. I am amazed at the level of inter-relations among the families depicted in the book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 23, 2009

    Fascinating and eye-opening

    This book is fascinating, well researched and a real eye-opener. I have read several biographies of Thomas Jefferson but after reading this book they all seem inadequate as it becomes obvious they all miss a huge part of his life. The question is why Jefferson biographers ignored the information that was out there all along. Or, maybe it's not such a mystery -- they were largely white men only interested in his political career. However, some of Jefferson's political moves are better understood by reading this book. It also gives the reader a better propective of the person he really was and why he remained a slave owner all his life.

    The characters in the book are alive and full of drama although at times the author's analyses of issues are repeated over and over again.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    Slow Going

    While this book is well researched it is a slow read. It is far more academic than I was expecting - I felt like I was back in college reading this for a history class. You can't really lose yourself in the story because the author is too caught up in the research. I'm making my way through it but it is not enjoyable.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    afraid i couldn't get through this one ...

    i LOVE thomas jefferson and have tried to read as much about him and by him as i can manage. this was on my "list" for a while before i got to it, but i was sorely dissapointed. especially after it won a Pulitzer...

    although i knew nothing about the author going into this tome, it didn't take me many pages to size her up. and once i did, i decided that this just wasn't a book i could get through.

    my advice: read up on the author first.

    5 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    very disappointing

    the subject of the book is intriguing and this could have been a very good book...but...because there is no extant evidence to prove the author's theories, she relies on "facts not in evidence" and speculation....the author uses 10 sentences where one would do, and is very repetitive...the liberal use of the words "white supremacy" was off-putting and offensive...the second half of the book is a little better than the first half...but one gets the feeling that the author has "an axe to grind" and this comes off as more a character assassination of jefferson than a balanced historical inquiry. check out the author prior to purchasing this book and/or read "in defense of thomas jefferson"

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 23, 2010

    AN INTELLIGENT AND THOUGHT PROVOKING READ

    To say the least, I highly enjoyed this book and recommend it! The author's usage of certain terms are needed in order to provide the reader with insight into what was occurring during those times and in some instances the "mindset" that is still seen today. The terminology "White Supremacist" is utilized to grasp the ordeal that African Americans were put through along with understanding how Caucasians perceived themselves. It was a history lesson that you cannot obtain in a traditional classroom. For those who did not realize the debilitating affects of slavery, this book brings it to the forefront. It showed Jefferson clearly in his own environment. His actions are nothing new and for those who choose to perceive his actions as right are clearly as wrong as he. For those who can not get through the book, perhaps you are not as "politically correct" as you thought you were. As the old adage says, "The Truth Hurts"!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2009

    Excellent book for the Historically Minded reader

    This is an excellent book by an extablished author; it is a natural follow up to her book about Sally Hemmings. It, of course, suffers the same shortfall as all previous books about Sally Hemmings and her families relationship with Thomas Jefferson; both of the main characters have left no first hand account of the actual nature of the relationship. Never-the-less the author does an outstanding job of dispassionately assembling circumstantial evidence which points to the most probable nature and extent of the relationship. (One should not forget that the DNA evidence to date is also circumstantial) I am satisfied that she comes very close to the truth.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2009

    Too Long

    I found this novel too long. Although true accounting of the events - it became tedious and boring.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2008

    Interesting

    Very good book so far . . . the way the author reveals the history of this family will keep the reader hooked. The historical, social, and psychological observations made by the author are very interesting! Great addition to a history buff's library.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 26, 2011

    Very interesting subject

    I loved this book. Criticisms I read in others' reviews, mostly rhat it reads like a dissertation, erring on the side of precision in language over the finesse of story-telling, are true. The author often drives the point home about how the laws of the time were set up to create absolute control over the African slaves and to remove any sense of dignity and societal worth. Sometimes this point is made ad nauseum, but it is a major point. If you can get past the "dissertation style," it is an excellent read about how our 3rd president maintained slaves, many of whom he was related to by his marriage to his beloved Martha. Also how those slaves related to him were treated more favorably, while making no mistake of their status in life. While President Jefferson is often criticised by the author, he is still treated fairly.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2009

    Good book

    I was very impressed by the detail in this book. The author presumed many of the thoughts and feelings by the characters. Interesting and provocative as well as intellectually written.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2009

    Update of Your History Classes

    Well, this is an enlightening book about the dark aspects of the life of one of the "great enlightened" founding fathers, and the amazingly complicted life of his wife's half-siblings and their children fathered by him, all who were in servitude to his household and to his person when he traveled, etc. The social hierarchies of the free and the enslaved are considered in depth. For Jefferson, Monticello, Revolutionary War, history of slavery "buffs," etc. Highly recommend for those interested in a wonderful density of information.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2009

    Enlightening, informative and touching book

    I really enjoyed that book. It is a long read but it reflects the amount of research and time the author spent on it and it provides a lore of information. I found it very informative in its depiction of the background and context of slavery and the way slavery impacted the daily life of both slave owners and slaves. What I liked the most is that through the assembly of little puzzle pieces about the life of the Hemings family, the author manages to give them a life and an identity as a very real family, something that was obviously denied to them at the time the events happened and seems to have been carefully buried for convenience afterwards.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2008

    Heavy Historical Reading But Fascinating

    Very heavy historical reading and analysis. But fascinating. Well written and researched with amazing details. I must admit I skipped a lot of the author's analysis for several reasons. One, I felt like I was being lectured from a point of view of the author's personal feelings rather than historical perspective and, two, I was more interested in the story/narrative rather than the author's perspective. Though to be fair, she brings out many ideas I would not have thought of myself. It's also a slow read for me. All that said, it's been a book I enjoyed and will use as a reference in the future.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A Must Read!

    This book is perfect for anyone who wants the truth of the history of slavery in this country and what power a young beautiful slave girl can actually have!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2010

    The Heminges of Monticello

    An excellent read if you are interested in history.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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