Gordon-Reed has pulled off an astonishing feat of historical re-creation, involving equal measures of painstaking archival detective work, creative historical imagination, and balanced judgment. She masterfully fills in gaps from fragmentary evidence. While her patient assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of various interpretations often slows the book’s pace to a crawl, her caution is understandable. In shining a spotlight on 'the shadow world of slavery,' she ventures into the most painful and fraught issues in American history—the rape of enslaved women, tensions between light- and dark-skinned blacks, the legacy of white supremacy, and the possibilities for slaves’ autonomy, to name only a few. Black women are the central characters in a story that challenges some of the nation’s most cherished narratives. In contrast to so much popular work on the Revolutionary era, history is viewed here not through the eyes a Founding Father but through those of the people he enslaved ... Gordon-Reed doesn’t use the Hemings family as a metaphor for the 'black experience,' or Sally Hemings to humanize 'slave women.' She focuses instead on the individuals who struggled messily to survive despite these categories and, every once in a while, broke through them.
... a powerful composite portrait of the African American family whose labors helped make Jefferson’s Virginia residence a fountainhead of American culture ... Gordon-Reed teases out telling clues from correspondence and journals of the Hemingses’ struggle for dignity despite the cruel constraints of slavery. That Jefferson finally freed his children by Sally does not obscure those restraints, nor does it hide the tragedy visited upon other Monticello slaves when Jefferson’s posthumous debts licensed the auctioneer to break up black families to increase their market value. A must-have acquisition for every American history collection.
... a brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed’s achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers. They have struggled to illuminate, and sometimes to gloss over, the dark places in his life ... While praising [Gordon-Reed’s] grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter.