Jefferson’s Sons, Part 2
I know the comments are going strong at Jefferson’s Sons, Part 1 while I type, but I’m going to attempt to flesh out my concerns with the characterization in this story, since this is what in particular gives me the most pause with it in a Newbery discussion.
Looking through passages I’d marked that seemed “off,” the characters through which Bradley tries to tell her story seem truly too naive of their situation to be believable. Her characters ask questions that her readers might ask, and the character of Sally, Uncle John, or the adult Beverly answers them as the author might. This is a telling-rather-than-showing narrative. I don’t believe these characters are true. Some of you in comments have said that you don’t have a problem with the naiveté because it rings true to you for children of that age. But while in a general fiction we only have to be convinced that a character could exist, in an historical fiction based on real people we have to be convinced that this is how these people did exist.
p.11 Beverly smiled. He touched the side of Master Jefferson’s face. “Your eyes are gray,” he said. “Just like my baby brother’s. Maddy has eyes just like yours.”
Would Beverly never earlier have been cautioned not to touch Master Jefferson, or make family comparisons?
p.22 “Won’t he marry you?” asked Beverly. “He can’t,” Mama said, after a second silence. “Why not?” Mama sighed again. “A black person can’t marry a white person. A slave can’t marry at all.” This was news to Beverly. “Are you a slave, Mama?” “Yes.” “Am I?” “We’ll talk about that later.”
The fact that all this is news to him at age seven is hard to believe, but the way the conversation unrolls is also very unlikely. Wouldn’t Beverly by this age have picked up on SOME signals that his mother’s affair with Jefferson is “different”? That black and white people do not marry?
p.52-3 “I forget how much you people like your sweet potatoes.” That comment stuck in Beverly’s head. He couldn’t puzzle it out. He couldn’t imagine anyone not liking a sweet potato. “Which people was she talking about?” he asked Mama at night. “Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she meant. Don’t worry about it.” “But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said. “I’m her brother.” Mama sighed and rubbed her hand through his hair. “Don’t say that,” she said. “It’s true,” Beverly said. “A lot of things are true,” said mama, “but that doesn’t mean we say them out loud.”
She’s never told him before not to say these things out loud? He’s never heard of himself referred to as a slave or “you people”? Did he learn nothing on p.22?
p.87 “I know you need a job,” Mama was saying. “More than that, you need a trade. A way to earn a respectable living, once you’re free and on your own. It’s time we started thinking about it. What do you like to do?” Beverly blinked. He’d never thought about what he wanted to do…. “What do you like?” Mama persisted. “What feels good under your hands?”
They’ve never thought or talked about what trade he’ll learn before age 10? He’s never thought about it? And his choice in the matter is paramount? I don’t believe any of it. Isn’t Sally’s whole situation predicated on her son’s success in the white world? Wouldn’t she have been thinking about this all along?
p.188 “Maddy never paid much attention to give-out time. He didn’t care what he wore.”
I have a hard time believing that he didn’t care what he wore. In a place where everything depended on status, wouldn’t everyone?
When we switch to Maddy, Bradley tries to make him out as a more skeptical and angry character, yet I find his voice the same, and have a hard time remembering whose POV we’re in. For instance, he expresses the same kind of naïveté when James is sold:
p.222 “I thought he liked Miss Edith and Joe Fossett. I thought he’d be fair to people he liked.”
… And a few pages later repeats himself: p.227 “I thought Master Jefferson cared about Miss Edith and Joe,” he said….”I thought he wouldn’t sell people he liked, not if they worked hard.”
And much later, Peter, who really should have a different perspective, seems to have the exact same problem, though clearly as the child of a slave he should understand this better:
p.331-2 “If we have to, we can sell some of the extra Negroes.” Peter frowned. He must have misheard. Negroes meant black people. Surely Miss Martha hadn’t said that. Extra people? Who did she think was extra? She could sell some extra furniture…”
I felt that Sally’s motivations and position were never made clear to the reader. She came off, frankly, as either a little dense, or shallow, or both, the way that she prepared (or didn’t prepare) Beverly for his situation. On p. 48 she says that she’s so much happier here than in France because now she’s had all her beautiful children, which is something a mother today might say to her child, but an enslaved mother who passed up her own freedom in exchange for that of her children? Wouldn’t she have a slightly different take? And on p.263, when she’s cautioning Harriet not to stand for a man hitting her, she says:
p.263 “If a man ever hits you, even once, I want you to leave his house! That instant! You come back here if you have to, you hear me!”
This is completely out of place with what the reader’s been given to understand about the danger of Beverly and Harriet’s return to Monticello. Would Sally really advise her daughter to risk her ultimate freedom in order to escape a physically abusive man?
Rereading comments on the last post, I see adults readers who are willing to accept this naivete as expressed in the text on the assumption that Sally was sheltering her children. But is Sally’s motivation ever made clear in a convincing way? Is it convincing that Beverly would really be this naive at age seven, have never picked up on clues? Is this, overall, a convincing depiction of what it might have REALLY been like to be these real people? To be convincing, it must be in the text–not in what we want the story to be, and not in what the author tells us she intended. I do not see it, and I believe that the lack of effective characterization undermines the effectiveness of the “interpretation of theme or concept” for a child audience.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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