The Story Behind the Story
I stumbled into Monticello the way I've stumbled into all of my historical fiction - the research for one book left a loose thread that I followed into a new story. Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard ended in 1776, with Franklin departing for France, where he is eventually met by Thomas Jefferson and his young daughter. As soon as I came across a letter the fourteen year-old Martha Jefferson wrote: "I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed . . ." I was hooked. I read all of Martha's letters to her father and his to her. I read her biography. I read his biographies. Running through it all I found a multi-faceted woman who had played a much larger role in her father's - and our - history than I'd previously assumed. I also discovered that Martha had spent her life doing something I'd spent a fair portion of mine doing: attempting to figure out her father.
Most of the quotes deploring the institution of slavery that are attributed to Martha Jefferson Randolph in these pages (and to her father and husband) are historical fact; it’s also an historical fact that she – and they – bought and sold and relocated human beings throughout their lives. I make no excuses for Martha Jefferson Randolph or for her father and husband; my intention is to explore their struggle with slavery in an effort to better understand how intelligent, conscience-ridden people could allow it to live so long.
I’ve been to Monticello many times. At each visit I discover something new and ponder something new. I find it impossible to step into the great house or the slave cabin without hearing the tread of black and white feet or the echo of black and white voices; neither could I enter either structure without imagining the tears – black and white -- that were shed there. To flesh out the people who lived there, to map the crosscurrents of the two related cultures became my goal. Monticello is the result.
Monticello - Read an Excerpt
Monticello - Reading Guide