In a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes, O'Connor breathes life into a contentious and largely unknown slice of American history. This is bold, generous writing that eschews convenient narrative expectations, instead depicting a world full of complication, full of contradiction — a world a lot like our own. Recommended By Justin W., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.
Novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks are a part of a long tradition of American fiction that plumbs the moral and human costs of history in ways that nonfiction simply can’t. Now Stephen O’Connor joins this company with a profoundly original exploration of the many ways that the institution of slavery warped the human soul, as seen through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. O’Connor’s protagonists are rendered via scrupulously researched scenes of their lives in Paris and at Monticello that alternate with a harrowing memoir written by Hemings after Jefferson’s death, as well as with dreamlike sequences in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, Hemings fabricates an “invention” that becomes the whole world, and they run into each other “after an unimaginable length of time” on the New York City subway. O’Connor is unsparing in his rendition of the hypocrisy of the Founding Father and slaveholder who wrote “all men are created equal,” while enabling Hemings to tell her story in a way history has not allowed her to. His important and beautifully written novel is a deep moral reckoning, a story about the search for justice, freedom and an ideal world—and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.
“By turns delicate and luminous, then searing and straightforward, Stephen O’Connor’s novel sings – it is an epic dream and an epic read. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson come alive in this book, beautifully imagined, and so well-rendered that they become achingly human.” Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones
“O’Connor is a brave writer. For his debut novel, he takes on an incredibly complicated, sensitive, and still-debated topic: the decades-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. Its format is impressively inventive and accessible, and it suits its subject. Using traditional narrative, dream sequences, reimaginings, and excerpts from memoirs and Jefferson’s writings, it moves beyond historical fiction to demonstrate the bitter, long-lasting aftereffects of Jefferson’s moral hypocrisy. . . .this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss.” ALA Booklist (starred review)
“[F]ully acknowledging the tragedy of slavery, O’Connor produces a tale that is overflowing with the range of human emotion; in its depiction of feeling, the novel is often brilliant, dense in poetry and light on unearned sentimentality.” Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Stephen O'Connor is the author of two collections of short fiction, Here Comes Another Lesson and Rescue, as well as Orphan Trains, an acclaimed history of a pioneering nineteenth-century child welfare effort, and Will My Name Be Shouted Out, a memoir. His fiction has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. He lives in New York City and teaches in the Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs.