Tag Archives: family relationships

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“‘Master Jefferson has done a lot of great things…he was a leader in the war.  He wrote that declaration thing.  He made us a new country.  And then he went to France, and he was president…so, does all that mean he’s a great person?  White folks seem to think so.  If you’re great enough in some areas, does it make up for the rest?’

Maddy asked, ‘Would a great person sell someone else’s son?'” (p. 254-255)

How would you feel if your father was the President of the United States, but no one could know about it?  Or if your father was also your owner?

In Jefferson’s Sons, Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s other children-those he had with his slave, Sally Hemmings.  Beverly, Harriet, Maddy & Eston get better treatment than the other slaves at Monticello, but they are still slaves.  Beverly, Harriet & Eston are light-skinned enough that at age 21, when they receive their freedom, they’ll be able to enter white society, but it’s a decision that will mean never seeing their mother or Maddy again.  Bradley explores complex issues of slavery, identity, equality, freedom, and family while maintaining a certain measure of innocence by telling the story through a child’s eyes.  The story dragged a bit towards the middle, but press on through that because the ending is incredibly powerful and brought tears to my eyes.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Juvenile Fiction | 368 pages | September 2011 | Dial | 0803734999 | Library copy

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Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen

“‘There is no understanding between people,’ I wrote, ‘and one cannot rely on others to make meaning of life.  One has only oneself.” (p. 202)

Through a series of five elegies to lost family and friends, Mary Murphy uniquely tells us the story of her life. There’s Mike Beaudry, Mary’s hard-living uncle, who did his best to care for Mary and her sister Malinda while their beautiful yet erratic mother married one man after another and created a life of volatile instability for her young girls.  There’s Elwood LePoer, the dim-witted town fool whose cruel retaliation lead Mary to one of the most stable relationships of her life.  There’s Carson Washington, Mary’s college roommate whose senseless death prompted Mary to save her own life.  There’s James Butler, a bitter, middle-aged piano player whose betrayal ended up pushing Mary to achieve more than she thought possible.

And finally there is Margaret Murphy Collins Francis Adams Witherspoon, Mary’s mother.  Margaret had a tendency to live her life as though it was staged performance, a characteristic derived from her own rocky childhood and the idea that she somehow deserved more than she ever received.  Without a sense of stability, Mary slowly retreated into herself, while Malinda tended to take after their mother with tempermental outbursts and unpredictable emotions.  Malinda eventually left home, while Mary is left to decide whether to move on or fall apart.

Mary’s story is tragic and heartbreaking and, yet, unexpectedly hopeful.  Hodgen has woven together a mournfully beautiful search for meaning amid poverty, desperation, addiction and hopelessness; where not a word is wasted and every detail intricately fits together to reveal a complex and blatantly honest portrait of a life.

Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen
Adult | 271 pages | July 2010 | W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393061406 | Library copy

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By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (2010)

“Decent people doing their best to live decent lives, there’s nothing really to hate them for, they do their jobs and maintain their property and love their children (most of the time); they take family vacations and visit relatives and decorate their houses for the holidays, collect some things and save up for other things; they’re good people (most of them, most of the time), but if you were me, if you were young Peter Harris, you felt the modesty of it eroding you, depopulating you, all those little satisfactions and no big , dangerous ones; no heroism, no genius, no terrible yearning for anything you can’t at least in theory actually have.” (p. 47)

The jacket says By Nightfall is “heartbreaking look at the way we live now.” Cunningham paints a portrait of contemporary life through Peter and Rebecca Harris that is desolate, lonely, haunting and full of mourning for the things we want but cannot have and the things we have but don’t want anymore. It reminded me of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates in its exploration of marriage, longing and expectation.

More memorable quotes:

“…he can’t stop himself from mourning some lost world, he couldn’t say which world exactly but someplace that isn’t this…” (p. 22)

“…we don’t care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they’re good. We care about them because they’re not admirable, because they’re us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it.” (p. 119)

“I’m just a child who’s learned to impersonate an adult.” (p. 214)

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Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Jack loves Room.  It’s the place where all of his memories exist, where he and Ma play and read and do Phys Ed and watch Dora and SpongeBob on TV.  Where they scream at Skylight, curl up together on Bed, and lie side by side on Rug, talking and dreaming.  Where he’s learned all he knows about the world and how it works.  Except for Jack, his whole world is Room.  But Jack’s 5 now, and 5 is bigger than 4 so he’s ready for the truth…or is he?

Jack was born in Room where Ma has been imprisoned for 6 years after being abducted at 19.  He’s never breathed in the fresh air, felt a raindrop or experienced the warmth of the sun on his skin.  His entire existence has been spent in an 11×11 space.  He’s never spoken to or seen another person in his entire life, save for Old Nick, Ma and Jack’s captor who visits nightly to “jump the Bed” with Ma.  Even Jack’s glimpses of Old Nick are only through the slates in Wardrobe where Ma has him hide when Old Nick comes.

Told in Jack’s unique voice, Room is a haunting novel.  It was difficult for me to get into the book at first, precisely because Jack is a 5-year-old and speaks like a 5-year-old.  But eventually I was able to look past the annoying grammer and phrasing to experience the deeper story.  Having the story told from Jack’s perspective makes Room at once more and less emotional.  For Jack, Room is all he’s ever known.  He doesn’t miss things from the Outside because to him, those things don’t exist.  He’s happy in Room.  We experience the true horror of the situation through Ma’s reactions and behaviors.  I was laid off from work this past winter, one of the coldest we’ve had here in NJ in some time.  I had nowhere to go and nothing to do for the 8-9 hours my husband was at work.  I nearly went insane.  That is as far as I can go to comprehend what Ma (we never do learn her real name) must have been going through being locked away for 7 years.  And yet, she carved out a life for Jack that had a degree of, dare I say, normalcy to it. 

I found the part about their escape a little bit unbelieveable.  Jack rolled up in a rug pretending to be dead?  Old Nick just taking Ma at her word that that’s what happened?  That doesn’t seem very bright for a man that built a sound-proof, escape-proof prison in his backyard and managed not to be found out for 7 years.  It all seemed to go off a little too smoothly.

I thought Donoghue did a good job expressing the sensory overload Jack would have experienced during his first few weeks out in the world and the overwhelming despair Ma felt.  She’s been nothing but Jack’s mother for as long as he’s been alive and suddenly she must learn to re-adjust to the world as well. 

“Most days…Jack’s enough for me.”

“‘The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the Door – ‘” That’s his poem voice.

Ma nods.  “Yeah, but it’s not how I remember myself.”

“You had to change to survive.”

Noreen looks up.  “Don’t forget, you’d have changed anyway.  Moving into your twenties, having a child – you wouldn’t have stayed the same.”

Ma just drinks her coffee. (p. 314)

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