Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family " won more medals, it seemed, than Michael Phelps: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize. And there is justice in that—if you missed it when it first appeared, you'd be doing yourself an enormous favor reading it now that it has appeared in paperback. It's an astonishing work of American history. Trained as a lawyer, Gordon-Reed carries out her mission with extraordinary skill, confronting not only the once-concealed details of Thomas Jefferson's biography, but also, at the most elemental, themes of the American story: slavery, race, identity, the lives of women, family structures, the behavior and understandings of the Founding Fathers, the way history is written. As skilled in storytelling as she is in the forensics of research, Gordon-Reed is fearless in her exploration of eighteenth-century Virginia and the contradictions of Jefferson's private and public attitudes toward race and slavery. At the same time, her tone is dispassionate; she has no tendency to scold, only to reveal. At least as fascinating is her treatment of the complex and varied lives of the slaves, in general, and the Hemings family, in particular, as well as the relationship with Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his late wife.
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