The following reviews initially appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.
THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, Steven O’Connor, Viking
A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account.
For the most part, the novel offers a standard narrative that follows both Jefferson and Hemings from childhood through their long-standing intimate relationship and beyond. It wrestles with the question of Sally’s level of consensual participation, as well as the contradictions between Jefferson’s philosophy and practice. Throughout the main narrative, however, is a series of flight-of-imagination vignettes: Thomas Jefferson watches a Hollywood movie of his life; an interviewer tapes a Q&A with Sally Hemings and her brother James; Thomas Jefferson sees his former lover, Sally Hemings, from across a crowded and lurching subway car.
Some of these work better than others, but they allow O’Connor to explore concepts and perspectives in ways the main narrative could not. A disturbing exchange between a female guard and the male prisoner (Jefferson) she is tasked with torturing demands that we contemplate how it is that anyone who buys and sells human beings is not considered evil.
Most affecting is Sally’s “confession,” related in snippets, in which she reflects upon the ways that perhaps she was a collaborator in an evil system, turning a blind eye to others’ suffering while she benefited from her status. Her confession culminates in the horror of the auction of 130 Monticello slaves, held after Jefferson’s death to help pay his significant debts. Unfortunately, that is an historical fact.
THEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME, Helen Maryles Shankman, Scribner
A compelling blend of folktales, magical realism, Nazi barbarity, and family history, They Were Like Family to Me offers a series of interconnected stories primarily set in 1942 in the small Polish town of Wlodawa (six kilometers from the Sobibór extermination camp), as the Nazis systematically empty it and the surrounding countryside of Jews.
What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal. Woven through the stories are talking dogs and horses, humans transformed into avenging beasts, a modern-day Golem sent as protector. How else to explain the unexplainable of the few Jews to survive the systematic slaughter at Wlodawa, in which “in three days, ten thousand lives vanished into smoke, like a colossal magic trick”?
Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts. The stories describe characters and events from different perspectives, and each tells a piece of the full story.
Two characters recur somewhere in every story: Willy Reinhart, Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, Wlodawa’s skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart, undeniably flawed but fundamentally “a decent man,” is determined to use his position, his talents, his legendary smile – “the smile threw its arm around your shoulders and called you friend” – to protect as many Jews as possible. Soroka, generous and well-respected, becomes Reinhart’s conduit to the people of Wlodawa.
The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.
*Note: They Were Like Family to Me was originally published under the title In the Land of the Armadillos.
READER, I MARRIED HIM, edited by Tracy Chevalier, William Morrow
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Charlotte Brontë knows, “Reader, I married him,” is the climactic sentence of Brontë’s book for the ages, Jane Eyre. Conceived of, edited by, and with a contribution from Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), this collection of stories is out in time to celebrate Brontë’s 2016 bicentenary, and it features wonderful writing by a cast of strong female authors, each contributing one of these “stories inspired by Jane Eyre.”
Inspired, that is, by both the book and the titular character, who – for many girls who are now women of a certain age – was the first strong, independent-minded female character in literature we ever met. She made an impression.
These stories make an impression too; each one is thoroughly engaging beyond the frisson of discovering how each author uses the shared springboard. One of the most thought-provoking is Susan Hill’s title story, “Reader, I Married Him,” which gradually reveals the identity of the historical character who is narrating, and demands that the Reader rethink probably knee-jerk assessments she may have about one of modern history’s most notorious and reviled home-wreckers. Helen Dunmore gives us “Grace Poole Her Testimony,” offering a decidedly different take on the ever-stoic Grace and her true role at Thornfield, while Salley Vickers paints a not-so-happily-ever-after picture from Mr. Rochester himself in “Reader, She Married Me.” Finally, Elizabeth McCracken’s story is a fully modern take on the construct of marriage as two men take their young son on a day trip in “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark.”
Just know that after enjoying this story collection, you’ll be certain to pull out your old, yellowed copy of Jane Eyre (mine is a Signet Classic from 1960) and enjoy it one more time.