Dedicated to “the enigma of the historical Sally Hemings,” Sally Hemings is a work of fiction about historical personages and events. In the historical record, Sally Hemings and her children appear as items of personal property in Thomas Jefferson’s inventories, and “Dusky Sally” appears as the object of salacious accusations in the writing of Jefferson’s political enemies. Chase-Riboud draws on history professor Fawn McKay Brodie’s 1974 biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, as well as on her own examination of source documents to interpret a historical record in which white males have traditionally assumed the right to define the experience of women and black people, and in which the voice of Sally Hemings herself is silent.
Chase-Riboud imaginatively re-creates Hemings’s life. Hemings grows up happy and well cared for in a large and closely knit family; slavery rests easily on her. Like her playmate and niece, Martha Jefferson, she adores the domineering and kindly master of Monticello, Martha’s father and Sally’s owner. She blossoms into womanhood in ladies-maid status in France, where her life options are not defined by her race. She learns to converse in two languages and acquires fashionable clothing and manners. When her brother James tells her they must stay in France as free people, she asks, “What do ’free’ people do?” Hemings’s return to Monticello, though she was legally free in France, is a historical fact, one the novel must explain. Chase-Riboud’s fictional Hemings knows “as sure as death that I belonged to Thomas Jefferson” and welcomes as ardently as Jefferson does the beginning of their sexual relationship. She chooses to trust her lover’s assurance of their eventual return to France. As his responsibilities to the new republic increasingly absorb him, Hemings realizes that she and her children are trapped in her choice of love...
(The entire section is 787 words.)