Saturday, February 23, 2019

Patriot Hearts by Barbara Hambly

Title: Patriot Hearts
Publication: Bantam Books, trade paper, 2008
Genre: Historical Fiction
TBR Challenge:  This is the first book I have read from my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, sponsored by Roof Beam Reader.  Mind you, my house is one large pile of books waiting to be read, but I selected just a handful!
Plot: This is the story of four women important to the early history of America: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, wives to three presidents, and Sally Hemings, the slave who bore Thomas Jefferson several children.  Told partly in flashbacks as the British march on the White House during the War of 1812, Hambly convincingly portrays the Founding Mothers with fictionalized vignettes that show their relationships with their spouses, historical figures of the day and, occasionally, with each other.

Audience: Fans of well-researched historical fiction and Revolutionary history. I am adding it to my list of books for Hamilton fanatics (I myself saw the musical in New York for the second time earlier this month).

Favorite Quote:
“Tom Jefferson’s an intelligent man,” [Abigail Adams] said, frustrated, as they walked back toward the house, Caesar trotting, arthritic but game, at their heels.  “How can he not see what happens, when factions and parties develop?  How can he go on saying that this divisiveness is of any benefit to anyone?  We won our freedom by acting together, John. The Sons of Liberty, and the people of Boston, took their direction from a small group of men who knew all the facts, who had been educated and took time to study the matter.  Now all is anarchy, with the newspapers spilling out the most horrible lies!”
My Impressions: While I read Childhood of Famous American biographies of Martha, Abigail, and Dolley, and a Marguerite Vance biography of Patsy Jefferson (portrayed more favorably than in this book) in elementary school, I accumulated mostly superficial things about them so enjoyed this very detailed book  and its blend of fact and fiction very much.  Hambly even cites Washington’s Lady by my beloved Elswyth Thane as one of her sources, which I own but have not read (Thane also wrote a book about Dolley Madison).  I was surprised by people addressing Martha Washington as “Lady Washington” but this turns out to be accurate (albeit foolish in a nation establishing itself as a republic – were any other American women given such an honorific?).

I knew less about Dolley Madison than the others: only that she was Quaker by upbringing and the famous story of her rescuing the portrait of George Washington just before the British looted the White House – a dramatic but true story!   Her  transition from growing up in a devout Quaker family to becoming a lively Washington hostess who is expelled from Meeting when she marries an Episcopalian was interesting, although whether she married Madison because she was destitute or sincerely attached to him is unclear.  Aaron Burr, sir, introduced her to the Virginia congressman  17 years her senior.

It is hard to read about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson because we know she was just a teen when she became pregnant with their first child and had no choice in the matter.  I had forgotten that she was his wife’s half-sister (the wife he was ostensibly heartbroken to lose) which makes it even sicker.   While some authors write about their relationship as if it were a love story and, sentimentally, one doesn’t want to think of Jefferson as a cruel slaveowner and rapist, it is impossible to know if any affection was involved.   Hambly has romanticized it by imagining that Jefferson’s elder daughter Patsy taught Sally to read and that she took an intelligent interest in the politics of the day, so functioned almost as a companion to Jefferson, like the other help mates (Founding Mothers) in the book (in the afterward, Hambly admits she probably can't portray Sally Hemings without offending someone).  That is more palatable but Hambly admits she doesn't think Jefferson would have viewed Sally as a real companion (he didn't even free her in his will!) and there does not appear to be any evidence that she was literate.  When you read that Sally was free in Paris (where she escorted Polly Jefferson), you just wish she had tried to stay there!  Despite these concerns, I found the sections about Sally as interesting as the rest of the book.

This book has reminded me that on my next trip to DC, I would like to visit Monticello and see the new Life of Sally Hemings exhibit.

Off the Blog: I was listening to an incredibly exciting Harvard-Yale basketball game as I wrote this review.  Bryce Aiken won it at the buzzer for the Crimson!
Photo: Quinn G. Perini, Harvard Crimson
Source: Personal copy.

1 comment:

Sara said...

I look forward to reading this one. Barbara Hambly is a longtime favorite of mine, especially her SF, like the Darwath Series. The one book of hers I like the most though is the wonderful mashup she did for a Star Trek series, Called "Ishmael", combining classic Star Trek characters & plot points with Here Come The Brides (remember that TV show from the late 1960s?). It worked really well.