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Searching for Truth in History’s Shadows

Finding the Characters in Jefferson’s Sons

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Historical fiction can be entirely populated with fictional characters, it can use famous people (Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth) in fictional cameos, or—this is the type I most enjoy writing—it can involve real characters from history, being written about in a fictional manner.

If you create dialogue for a real person, you’re writing fiction. Ditto if you’re making up what real people feel or think. When I wrote my book For Freedom, about a sixteen-year-old French spy, I interviewed the actual spy—at that time, a woman in her seventies—multiple times. The book was still fiction, because of the way I wrote it, but I had first-person access to her actions, motivations, and emotions.

Jefferson’s Sons, my latest novel about the children born to Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, presented an entirely different challenge. I knew a handful of facts about Sally and her children. I had short memoirs written late in the lives of three people who lived at Monticello. (One of the memoirs contradicted part of another.) I had information from Jefferson’s Farm Journal and from other original documents, letters, census records, and the like. Even those were insufficient, because while I often knew what happened, I hardly ever knew how or why, let alone, and how did you feel about that?

I worked on Jefferson’s Sons for four years and six full drafts. Here’s how I made my characters, who’d lived so long in history’s shadows, step onto the main stage and come alive:

First, I researched my setting until I could move my characters through any typical day without having to think, “Wait! Should they be wearing underwear? Do they drink coffee? And where do they sleep?” (Underwear became the norm around 1830 but was probably never the norm for enslaved populations. Coffee was for rich folks—so Jefferson drank it; Sally did not. Jefferson slept in an alcove bed he designed; Sally and her children lived first in a cabin near the main house, and later in one of the rooms on dependency row. Where Sally slept is open to interpretation.)

I researched the actions of the characters. Usually I try to keep the timeline of my books tightly focused, but for Jefferson’s Sons that proved impossible: The more I learned, the more the story grew, until telling it properly required a twenty-year span. I taped a ten-foot piece of butcher paper to the hallway floor outside my office and divided it into squares, twenty-plus characters on one axis, twenty years on the other. I filled in every square with facts, who, what, where. Then I was ready to get to the good stuff: the people.

“You matter,” my fictional Sally tells her oldest son. “Not because of whose son you are. Because of who you are. You’re as important as every other human being that ever was or ever will be…. There’s not a soul on this mountain that doesn’t matter.”

Which is why the next thing I did was get down on my knees. How else would I, a white woman living 200 years later, dare put words into Sally Hemings’ mouth, and into the mouths of her children? It takes a certain amount of bravado to write a book like this; it takes a whopping dose of humility as well. Actor Denzel Washington, recalling his work on the movie Glory, said that he prayed to the ghosts of the slaves to help him get his portrayal right. I prayed for discernment; I prayed that the few characters who seem to spring fully-formed into my head (like Eston, the youngest of Sally’s children, a laughing imp from the start) at least wouldn’t insult their flesh-and-blood counterparts. I prayed that if I could keep working, keep trying, eventually the work would become real. I prayed for patience.

Then I analyzed the facts I knew. One of Sally’s sons, Madison, left a written memoir. His calm, logical tone, his relative lack of bitterness, and his description of a reasonably happy childhood all pointed to a loving mother and a close relationship with his siblings—easy enough to portray. At the same time, Madison was the only one of Sally’s surviving children who never passed into white society. It’s possible he could have passed, but chose not to; it’s also possible that his skin was darker than his siblings’. The option I chose would affect his characterization. Since there was a whiff of alienation in Madison’s recollections, and since conflict drives fiction, I made my Maddy too dark-skinned to pass—and, consequently, a boy who felt like an outsider within his family.

Madison also recalled being taught to read by Jefferson’s grandchildren. It was not illegal for white people to teach enslaved children to read, but it’s unlikely that Martha Randolph, Jefferson’s somewhat bitter daughter, would have encouraged or even tacitly permitted her children to do so. So, how to handle this in fiction? I looked closer. One of the granddaughters, Ellen Wayles Randolph, was known to be scholarly, home-schooled and self-taught but the intellectual equal to Jefferson himself. That was promising, but not as much as another clue: Madison later named one of his own daughters Ellen Wayles Hemings. Names were very important to enslaved families; none of Madison’s other children bore a name associated with the white side of their family. So I made Ellen Maddy’s secret teacher. I depicted her as frustrated with her lack of educational opportunity; I made Maddy both eager and wary. It worked.

Then there was the primer. Peter Fossett, an important character at the end of the story, left Monticello after Jefferson’s death with a primer Peter treasured. He was eleven, but he hadn’t really learned to read yet. All of that was historical fact. In his memoirs, the real Peter Fossett remembered the magical day in his new home when written words started making sense to him (shortly after that, his new master threw his primer into the fire, but that’s another story). So, by the end of my novel, Peter needed a primer; he needed to be motivated to learn to read when he wasn’t motivated before. If it was Maddy’s primer, passed down from Ellen to Maddy to Peter, everything started to make emotional sense. Maddy was an adult by the end of the novel. Peter was facing a terrible future, and it seemed right that Maddy would want to give him something to hang on to.

The most difficult chapter to write came from a piece of history I didn’t know about when I started writing, one that slapped me suddenly across the face. I knew Monticello’s tragic ending. I knew that the final word of my book would be sold.

I didn’t know about James Fossett.

James was the oldest surviving child of Joe Fossett, the Monticello blacksmith, and Edith Hern Fossett, the French-trained Monticello chef. He was one of the first babies born in the White House, during Jefferson’s presidency. He was very nearly the same age as Madison Hemings; the Hemings and Fossett families were related, and after Jefferson’s retirement they lived two doors down from each other in the south dependency row. It made perfect sense to me that Maddy and James would be best friends, and I depicted them so, happily, two sunny little boys playing together in my first draft. I knew from my research that at around age twelve Maddy would apprentice to his uncle John Hemings, the Monticello carpenter. It made logical sense that James would apprentice to his father, but to be sure, I checked the Plantation Database of the Thomas Jefferson Research Foundation.

Sold.

At age eleven, to Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Randolph.

Sold.

No explanation. No why. Jefferson’s stated policy (though he broke it several times) was to not sell children away from their mothers until the children were twelve years old; James Fossett had just turned eleven. He was the first-born son of two of the most trusted artisans on the plantation. The farm record doesn’t show how much Jefferson received for James, or even if any cash changed hands—merely that ownership did. After that, James Fossett, the living, breathing child, all but disappears from history. He slips into deeper shadows and is gone.

When I read about it, my hands shook. I would have to write it—write it from my Maddy’s eyes, as his best friend is stolen away forever.

I got up from my computer and didn’t sit down to it again for two weeks. When I did, I wrote a horrifically lousy scene. Take two was worse. Around the eighth draft I came up with something I could live with, but I still don’t like it. I didn’t want James—beautiful James, with his shining eyes and clever hands—my James—taken from me. I didn’t want it in my story.

I didn’t have a choice.

It was the teeniest bit—the very smallest bit, a tenth of a hundredth of a percent—of what it must have been like for Edith Fossett to lose her son on that January morning. Eventually I came to see it as a gift of understanding from the ghosts of Monticello. If you will, an answered prayer.


To read an excerpt from Jefferson’s Sons, click here.

To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

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