America’s First Daughter
This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…
America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.
Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)
And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.
In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?
But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…
- The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
- The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
- The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
- The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
- Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
- The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
- The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)
There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.
And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.
One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”
If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And you’ll have to wait for a short while yet, I’m afraid, since it is not released until March 1st next year. But you can pre-order it here, and I recommend that you do.