America's First Daughter is a 580 page novel about Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph, the eldest child and one of only two surviving children of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha Jefferson. Tall and red-headed like her father, Patsy lead a life that was full of triumphs, tragedies, and sacrifice. Erica Kane has nothing on Patsy. Seriously, this woman couldn't catch a break.
The novel is based on the thousands of letters Thomas Jefferson wrote in his lifetime, and opens with Patsy going through her father's letters after his death, burning many of them in order to shape his history--and protect him and others in the family. Each chapter begins with part of an actual letter written by Jefferson to either his family or one of his many friends and political allies. They help frame what is to come in that chapter. Patsy's love and devotion to her father drives pretty much her every decision, beginning with the death of her mother when she was just a young girl. Jefferson, devastated and near suicidal after his wife's death, leans on Patsy to guide him through his grief. She sees herself as his protector, and as Governor of Virginia, no one must know just how much Jefferson has descended to near madness. Patsy has to shoulder a lot of burdens early on in life, and while I was hopeful this would change, oh, I was wrong.
This novel takes the reader from Monticello (which is always in a state of construction, falling down, never completeness) to Paris, during Jefferson's tenure as Minister to France for a newly formed America, and back again to Monticello. Told through Patsy's eyes, we see her grow up, grow strong, and find love. But the course of true love does not run smoothly for Patsy, and her heart is broken. Patsy does marry Thomas Randolph, and eventually gives birth to eleven children; ten of whom survive to adulthood. I think that is just remarkable. But beyond her superwoman ability to survive childbirth that many times in the early 19th century, is Patsy's strength in understanding that her father was someone who gave his whole life to his country, even at the cost of personal happiness. And Patsy did the same thing, in devoting her life to her father. Sally Hemings plays a large role in this novel as well; she was Patsy's Aunt, if I followed the convoluted family tree. Her maternal grandfather was Sally's father; Sally's children by Thomas Jefferson were Patsy's siblings. Phew. Confusing. This was a big issue between Jefferson and Patsy, and the struggle Patsy goes through to understand why and come to peace with Sally runs throughout the novel. If I got anything from this novel, it was to be careful what you ask of others, and what you promise a dying loved one. It can trap you and haunt you the rest of your life.
This novel had me stopping and Googling everyone I read about: Patsy, Jefferson, Thomas Randolph, William Short, Sally Hemings and children....I spent a lot of time reading about them. I am always a bit hesitant to read historical fiction based on real people because inevitably there is something completely out of left field that isn't true. As a history gal, I hate to think people will read historical fiction and believe every bit of it is true. Patsy's relationship with William Short is something that may or may not be true; it makes for a good plot movement in this novel, but I can't find anything factual that ever mentions the two of them as lovers. I'll leave that up to you to decide.
You will enjoy this book. Oh, my heart ached for Patsy. She is one tough cookie. It took her a long time and a lot of angst to get there. She lived her life much as her father did, sacrificing personal happiness for the greater good. But her love for her father, as his for her, is admirable, and comes across the pages quite clearly. Reading about my country in its early growing pains and struggles reminds me that even today, we still have issues of race, equality, and the role of the government in the everyday lives of Americans. Elections were nasty, and people weren't above spreading malicious gossip to damage reputations. People haven't changed. And life was not easy for a woman caught between duty and love.
Rating: 9/10 for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking novel about family, an incredible woman, and what we will do to keep and protect our lives. I loved reading about post-revolutionary America, Paris as it tumbled into revolution, and so many famous fathers of our country.
Available in paperback, e-book, and large print hardcover.