- Hardcover: 624 pages
- Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (April 5, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0525429964
- ISBN-13: 978-0525429968
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.8 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 55 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #992,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 5, 2016
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From Publishers Weekly
O'Connor (Orphan Trains) delves with great acuity and depth into the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who required sexual intimacy from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, for nearly 40 years. Interweaving contemporary documents, narrative, fable, and fantasy, O'Connor creates startlingly vivid portraits of his major characters as well as the many injustices of slavery. The weighty political events of the day barely surface in the background as the novel focuses almost claustrophobically on the fraught intimacy between Jefferson and Hemings, from their humiliating first encounters to the steady companionship that evolves as they age. O'Connor takes additional imaginative leaps to further illuminate their relationship, including Hemings's fictional autobiography, scenes in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, and having the two meet on a subway in modern times. Hemings is depicted as a proud, strikingly beautiful woman possessed of intelligence and good sense, conflicted in her relationship with the master she grows to love, but O'Connor's real interest lies in understanding how a man so deeply committed to the ideals of democracy could be inherently racist, "both coward and hypocrite," and thus "abjectly human." The book meditates in turn on perception, justice, hatred, and evil, making visibleâthough never rationalizingâthe profound contradictions between Jefferson's philosophical ideals and his private life. This is a challenging, illuminating, and entirely original work that's broad enough to encompass joy, penance, "complexity, ambiguity," and "our muddy human souls." (Apr.)\n
Praise for Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings
“The most revolutionary reimagining of Jefferson’s life ever. . .what a dazzling experience this book is for the intrepid reader. . . O’Connor’s deeply humane treatment of Sally, whose actual thoughts will never be known to us, is the novel’s most haunting accomplishment. Ultimately, this is a book in vigorous debate with itself, as strange and contradictory as the author of the Declaration of Independence. With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history, and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“In hundreds of brief, pointillist chapters, Mr. O’Connor reimagines their decades-long relationship . . . The effect is prismatic and utterly arresting . . . Hemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple . . . What makes these literary gymnastics work is, in a word, talent . . . What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white. Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page.’"
—The Chicago Tribune
“A brave and wondrous dream of a novel. . .[Hemings] is one of history’s numberless mystery women, but she comes thoroughly and thrillingly alive in O’Connor’s telling.”
“Gives voice to a woman who was treated as an asterisk for too long. . .[her] experience is at the heart of this novel. . .O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance.”
“What’s striking about Stephen O’Connor’s first novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, isn’t just that he persuasively invents a relationship almost entirely of whole cloth. It’s also a superb argument for why we do this imagining — in the novel’s wilder moments where O’Connor weaves Jefferson into the present day, he underscores how hard it is to untangle slavery from the American conversation.”
—The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[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.”
“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)
“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
“A brilliant, huge-hearted act of the moral imagination. O'Connor has written a kind of quantum historical novel--simultaneously fiction and nonfiction, wave and particle. With dreamlike fluidity, the story moves from the real halls of Monticello to Jefferson's musings in the afterlife, from meditations on the phenomenology of color to what the theft of dignity means. This book creates new facts to live by; it's stranger and braver than I know how to describe. Open to any page and you will see what I mean."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“Expansive, riveting, and startlingly original, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction to make one of the most mysterious and politically charged relationships in all of American history heartbreakingly vivid and real. A richly imagined meditation on the human capacity for self-deception and on that troubling zone between exploitation and love.”
—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
“I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this novel by Stephen O’Connor. It’s a history of oppression; it's a story of a complex connection; it’s an American epic of Homeric proportions. Stephen O’Connor has brought into this work what I have long admired in his other writings – a wild imagination, a commitment to social and political concerns, and elegant, at times elegiac, prose. This is a tour de force.”
—Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
"This is an extraordinary book. It imagines the most intimate aspects of slavery in the way only fiction can—everything is freshly shocking and freshly human. And its wildly original use of dreamscape, fabulism, and philosophy gives us the layers these characters deserve, as it reinvents the historical novel."
—Joan Silber, author of Fools: Stories
Top customer reviews
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O'Connor can only have been painfully aware--as was Styron in his fiction about Nat Turner published some 50 years ago (although O'Connor's is the far superior work, in my estimation)--that in so doing he not only was treading on highly disputed, problematic political ground, but engaging in an act of imagination that promised to stretch his powers of empathic projection and creativity to its outer limits. The attempt alone is heroic and merits kudos.
In fact, "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," despite the awkwardness of its title, is a tour de force and major accomplishment. Not unlike Jay Cantor's "The Death of Che Guevara" or Earl Shorris's "Under the Fifth Sun," the novel is a grand addition to that genre of fiction which takes for its subject, as too few do, the interior lives of historical figures, in this case those of its two titular characters. In particular, its portrayal of Sally Hemings is utterly convincing. Here, the author has fully engaged with one of history's numberless "shadow" areas--the information gap, the void that is the real life of Sally Hemings-- and in an act of speculative literary alchemy, hauled it, which is to say her, into the sunlight of a three-dimensional high noon.
My only quibble with the work, and it is only a quibble, not even a reservation, was the quality of its prose--not its sensibility, neither its voice, both of which were spot-on. While that prose was well-crafted and perfectly serviceable, O'Connor almost perversely refused to exploit the more radical potentialities of the language, language that too seldom rose to the same risk-taking level as the material about which that prose was composed. In its 600+ pages, I neither needed recourse to a dictionary, not a single time, nor encountered a single image, simile or metaphor that lifted the hair on the back of my neck.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the novel was on the level of its language-use, too easy a read, too---not glib or facile--but too smooth; indeed, it was almost breezy. While his disjunctive, multi-faceted architecture and playing with time were wholly effective--in fact, those risk-taking aspects are some of the best features of the novel--on the language level, he chose to play it safe. His prerogative, of course, but had he chosen to pitch a little more caution to the four winds and on that level delivered more figurative fireworks, more prose-poetry, this would easily have been a five star work. As is, four-and-a-half, with a bullet.
In any event, hats off.