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The Hemingses of Monticello

An American Family
Narrated by: Karen White
Length: 30 hrs and 36 mins
Categories: History, American
5 out of 5 stars (1 rating)

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Summary

Pulitzer Prize, History, 2009

National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2008

This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826.

It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings's siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson's wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family's compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.

©2008 Annette Gordon-Reed (P)2008 Tantor

Critic reviews

"Fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance.... Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work." ( Publishers Weekly Starred Review)
"This is a masterpiece brimming with decades of dedicated research and dexterous writing." ( Library Journal Starred Review)

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Mama Goodson
  • 13-12-08

Worried at first

For the first 30 minutes or so I was pretty worried that this was going to be very dry and disappointing. After getting into it, however, I found that it was extremely informative. Rather than just providing sterile facts, it really goes into the laws and history and helps the listener understand what contributed to creating the environment that the Hemingses lived in. I would highly recommend this book.

39 of 39 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • D. Littman
  • 30-11-08

unparalleled treatment of the slave experience

This is an outstanding book, its National Book Award for 2008 well-deserved. And it is an outstanding audiobook too, not too dense to be followed on earphones or car-speakers, but also not a "popular history" made up of so much fluff & trivia to keep the reader's attention. It is very well narrated too ... the narrator goes at a good verbal speed, pronounces things correctly (often not the case in audiobooks), good emphasis. Not at all boring or dissertation-like. I am not sure what book the previous reviewer was listening to, but that reviewer's experience did not resemble my experience in the slightest.

38 of 40 people found this review helpful

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  • Leslie D.
  • 15-11-11

Fascinating Topic; Tedious Exposition

This book was doubtless ground-breaking, and I found the historical facts to be fascinating. But writing was tediously repetitive, and the reader/narrator really hard to endure for long periods of time. Although I'd like to finish the book, I don't know if I can get through it. Probably a better "read" than "listen."

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • R. Campbell
  • 06-08-18

Jefferson's Woman and Her Family

This is the story of the Hemings family whom Thomas Jefferson famously owned for 5 decades. The story begins with Elizabeth Hemings, Sally's mother. Elizabeth was purchased by John Wayles who had several children with her. When Jefferson marries Martha Wayles, her father John gave Jefferson several Hemings family members. When John Wayles dies, Jefferson inherits farms and slaves including the remaining Hemings family members. After the death of his wife, Jefferson becomes involved with one of Elizabeth's children, Sally. This is not historical fiction, it is a straight historical study of documents, diaries, letters and archeology. After 250 years the relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Heming are presented in the context of Jefferson's relationship with her whole family - it's complicated.

It is fascinating to learn the details of so many aspects of Jefferson's relationship to slavery and the Hemings family. Sally would have been 3/4 white and the half sister of his dead wife. On a 5 year trip to Paris, Jefferson pays her and her brother salaries, pays for medical expenses including small-pox inoculation as well as education and experiences that would give them a taste of life as international diplomats. Since France had no slavery, Sally and her brother James were legally free, yet they worked with Jefferson to make a deal to return to Virginia. Both received special allowances that made it their choice to live as slaves at Monticello rather than stay in France as free people. Again, it's complicated.

There is no excuse for slavery, but there was nuance this book explores. It is easy to apply political correctness to the knowledge now widely acknowledged that Jefferson not only owned slaves but had 6 children with the poor beleaguered Sally Hemings, but Annette Gordon-Reed doesn't bring political correctness, she brings scholarship and the stories of individuals who made individual decisions. Fascinating, well read and enjoyable.

22 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • Denise
  • 17-09-11

not really good as an audiobook

Perhaps an abridged version would be better, but this book is just too long with too much minutia for an unabridged audiobook. Gordon-Reed's research is amazingly detailed, but it makes for a tedious audiobook. Two hours in and I have yet to hear anything about Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemmings. We're still on one of Hemmings' white grandfathers, having completed some introductory material about her black grandmother and a good bit of stage-setting about slavery in Virginia.

I own the book itself and had purchased the audiobook because I never got around to reading the book. Now I think my best strategy is to go to the book to skim the early material and find where the real meat begins. Then I'll skip forward in the audio. Perhaps that will solve the tedium problem.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Dianne
  • 12-06-09

Fascinating

I loved the book, but I have a considerable interest in history, anthropology and the law. I have read the other reviews, and believe they reflect that this book is not for everyone, but is very much for some. I found the details about the legal system pertaining to slavery in Paris, Virginia, and elsewhere in the U.S. VERY interesting. I also loved the detail about the daily life of Sally Hemings, her brother, Thomas Jefferson and his household. For some, an abridged version would probably be a better choice, but I loved all the detail.

26 of 28 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • W.Denis
  • 23-05-09

A very believable review

Using the same documentary evidence as Jefferson's many historians but much common sense in arriving at conclusions, the author has built a believable case and convinced me that the days of protecting the icon from "scandal" are over. In fact she convinced me that there was no scandal in the fact of a lonely man's attraction to a beautiful young girl who happened to be his beloved wife's half-sister.

Ms. Gordon-Reed is so thorough in all this that at times one gets to be a little anxious for the next part to begin. Stay with it - it's well worth it.

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Connie
  • 01-06-09

Great Historical Value

This book provides great historical value of not only the lives of Jefferson and the Hemingses; but also of the values of the time. It provides insight into the thoughts of the era. I found it fascinating. We should become educated of the thoughts and customs of the times as provided in this book before we judge the actions of our historical leaders.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Brandon
  • 14-04-10

Interesting but...

Anette Gordon-Reed's book is a long and well researched work. Parts of it are very informative. However, she puts a lot of thoughts into her characters heads which may be fine when talking about Jefferson or Martha Jefferson Randolph who left many many many letters to be poured over and analyzed.

The Hemmingses have no such record and while I didn't always disagree with her assumption about what they were thinking and feeling I did often think it was pretty presumptuous. I don't profess to know the thoughts of people in complex living situations who are living today... much less ones living 200 hears ago.

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Lucie
  • 03-01-09

A rich and fascinating history

The strength of this book is that doesn’t merely provide a narrative of two families’ lives ~ the Jeffersons and the Hemingses of Monticello ~ although it certainly does that very well. Equally important, it explores the underlying issues that frame the story of these two families, especially in terms of race, class, gender, and the condition of being enslaved as opposed to free. For some, these underlying issues may seem tedious; for others (and I’m among these), they greatly enrich the narrative.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful