Kid Lit Review of “My Name is James Madison Hemings” by Jonah Winter

This story is told in the voice of James Madison Hemings, born a slave to Sally Hemings, the enslaved mistress of Thomas Jefferson. Madison, as he was called, reflects back on his childhood, and what it was like to be the son of a famous father, but still a slave on his father’s plantation. We learn in the Author’s Note that the book was inspired by James Madison Hemings’s 1873 newspaper interview in which he told his family’s story. As the author notes, he was the only one of Sally Hemings’s children to go public about it. The author also drew from the historical account by Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Gordon-Reed’s book reveals that Sally Hemings was one-fourth white, and was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, who died in 1782 at age 34. Martha and Jefferson had two daughters; Sally served as the enslaved maid of their two daughters.

On May 17, 1784, the Confederation Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson as a Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles, directing him to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Paris where he would eventually become the senior Minister in France. Jefferson’s wife was already dead, so he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion, purportedly for the girls. But Jefferson’s daughters were sent away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Jefferson, in his early forties, apparently began to have sexual relations with 14-year-old Sally. [It is only fair to note that “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.” Of course, “consent” when you are virtually a child and moreover are owned by someone as a slave is a different matter.] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.

As Madison grew up he learned that Jefferson was his father although he was never to speak of it. But indeed, as the author notes, the truth was “self-evident” – in a deliberate reference to Jefferson’s words about freedom in the Declaration of Independence – from Sally’s children’s fair skin and resemblance to Jefferson. Although they were enslaved, the children did receive “somewhat special treatment,” because they were able to avoid working in the fields and do other jobs instead. Madison even learned how to read and write. “And yet,” the author writes in Madison’s voice, “my name was written in my father’s ‘Farm Book’ – the ledger where he recorded all his property. My brothers’ and sister’s names were also there, alongside the names of all the people he owned, right amongst the pages listing sheep and hogs.”

Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her fate thereafter was laid out in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. [“Granting time” was a way to confer a sort of freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. Martha did however permit Sally at least to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings’s children as he had allegedly promised her he would: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; and Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will.

Terry Widener uses acrylic illustrations with soft colors to depict the Hemingses and their life at Monticello.

Evaluation: This books for readers 5 and over may never see the light of day in states that want school children shielded from the truth about slavery, especially with respect to the Founding Fathers. But where it is allowed, it will encourage readers to think about all the questions it raises, including about the hypocrisy of the man who wrote in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, 2016

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Review of “The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought” by Dennis C. Rasmussen

This account of the mutual affection and reciprocal influence between the great 18th Century Scottish philosophers David Hume and his junior by twelve years, Adam Smith, also serves as a good introduction to the theories of each of them. Their ideas, as a review of this book in the UK’s Prospect Magazine notes, formed the central intellectual engine of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Each man was controversial at the time, although Smith was less so, probably because, as Rasmussen suggests, he was more cautious in expressing his religious skepticism. Both were concerned with the same issues however, even though Hume is primarily known today for his theories of epistemology (i.e., what factors shape our understanding of the world), and his calling into question a number of religious beliefs. Smith, the author of “The Wealth of Nations,” is considered to be “the poster child of capitalism.” At first glance, they might seem to be quite different, but in fact that is far from the case.

Rasmussen delves into some of their ideas in depth, such as on the origins of morality. Both denied true morality came from any religious imperative. Hume was willing to threaten his standing in society by getting more specific, insisting that the “moral” behaviors advocated by religion were often contrary to human nature. Religion’s prohibitions and admonitions promoted useless forms of self-denial, sacrifice, and intolerance. Their injunctions, he averred, which can offer “the strongest violence to [a person’s] natural inclinations” are complied with not out of reason [because in fact they are antithetical to reason] but out of fear of divine retribution. Rather than making people better human beings, such constraints or commands that go against nature promote misery, fraud, cruelty, and a great deal of hypocrisy. As Hume wrote in “The Natural History of Religion” (Section XIV):

“. . . if he fast a day, or give himself a sound whipping, this has a direct reference, in his opinion, to the service of God. No other motive could engage him to such austerities. By these distinguished marks of devotion he has now acquired the divine favor; and may expect, in recompense, protection and safety in this world and eternal happiness in the next.”

But because of the unnaturalness of religious precepts about behavior and the tendency of human beings to “be human” anyway, “it is justly regarded as unsafe to draw any certain inference in favor of a man’s morals from the fervor or strictness of his religious exercises, even though he himself believe them sincere.”

David Hume

Hume’s negative views of religion, needless to say, did not make him popular among theists, nor for that matter, did his monumental History of England, which managed to offend political parties on both sides of the aisle. As he commented when he was dying, in his mordantly amusing style about the irony of his life:

“Here am I, who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies; except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”

Rather than religion as the source of morality, they both considered the trait of sympathy – “a central feature of human nature,” as Hume wrote – to be its main determinant; it is the commonality of human feeling and what we think just or unjust with respect to our own lives that gives us ideas about what is right and wrong for people generally. Moreover, in a utilitarian sense, moral behavior simply makes our lives go better. That is, we don’t get arrested; people regard us favorably (which gives us pleasure) and do things for us; and the common good is advanced for the betterment of all. Religion, they both suggested, mainly serves as an enforcement mechanism for religiously-approved behaviors.

Adam Smith

Both men posited that the same impulse lay behind both science and religion – i.e., the desire to explain the world and allay anxiety over the inexplicable, bestowing order on the natural world.

The two differed on several points, such as whether or not work per se constituted happiness. While they lauded the positive effects of capitalism and the progress it promoted, Smith was more critical of the downsides (ironically, since he was considered to be “the poster boy” of capitalism). He thought people were apt to work themselves to death for luxury items (encouraged by the incentive structure of the capitalist system) that would not necessarily make them happier; they always thought they needed more. Smith pointed to the shame that came with poverty or not having as much as others (insofar as capitalism defines success in terms of the accumulation of wealth). Material goods under capitalism, he observed, act as a signal conferring deference and approval. Thus, the rich, Smith noted, get far more attention and respect than the poor, whether deservedly so or not (and more often, they don’t deserve it, he added). [As Tevye the Milkman sang in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” if he were a rich man, villagers would ask him to decide important questions, “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know!”]

Tevye singing “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof

They also did not agree on whether there ought to be a state-sponsored religion – Hume said yes, and Smith said no, although their reasons were identical: each wanted to minimize the deleterious effects of religious fanaticism.

Nevertheless, the two men were generally in concert with one another, and at all times, benefitted from their close friendship. While not all of their correspondence has been located (there are just 56 extant letters between them — almost three-quarters of them by Hume), the letters that have been found suggest they met with each other often, helped and supported one another, and felt warmly toward one another. Hume in particular was constantly imploring Smith to come see him and stay with him.

Hume died on August 25, 1776 from abdominal cancer. (Smith outlived him by 14 years.) Hume wanted Smith to arrange for the posthumous publication of his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Smith, who had always been so careful to protect his own reputation, worried that the controversy over Hume’s irreligious ideas in the manuscript would ruin him by association. Hume was disappointed, but agreed instead to entrust his nephew with the project. And in fact, Smith was correct about its reception. James Boswell, for example, was offended by even the publishing of Hume’s “posthumous poison.” And when Smith, in writing, praised the skeptic Hume as a “virtuous man” after his death, Smith incurred much of the wrath he sought to avoid. (How can an apostate be “virtuous,” Hume’s detractors fumed.)

As Hume was dying, the public was intensely focused on him, with crowds actually assembled outside his house: would he continue with his skepticism or try at the last minute to gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven and an afterlife? Would he be fearful, depraved, or remorseful? Hume was none of those things, and retained his skepticism and good spirits until the end. He tried to show through his example that this life was enough, and that it no more bothered him that he would not exist after his death than it bothered him that he did not exist before his life.

Hume’s mausoleum in the Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh

Discussion: I hate to admit (even to myself) that I have never read Smith’s seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, so I was gratified to learn of the book’s main concepts through this story. I was also surprised at how many of his precepts and observations about capitalist societies remain not only relevant but right on point.

The author spent a bit less time on Hume’s theories than on the public reaction to them, which in itself was interesting and noteworthy.

The author also included observations about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher who had a large influence on American Founding Fathers, because of his interactions with Hume. I did not know about Rousseau’s bouts with psychosis, and felt sad that he lacked access to modern medications, which could have helped his productivity and quality of life.

Overall, I learned a lot in this book, and found it quite enjoyable.

Evaluation: Professor Rasmussen reveals the depth of influence David Hume had on Adam Smith, as well as the many beneficial aspects of their growing, deep friendship. The book isn’t that long, but serves as an excellent introduction to the thought of each man, both of whom have had an outsized influence on the way we think in the West today.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Princeton University Press, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Farmhouse” by Sophie Blackall

When I was little, one of my favorite books was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. I read it over and over, fascinated by a story about generations of a family told from the perspective of the house in which they lived. I suspect that book taught many, many children to think outside of the box.

Sophie Blackall’s Farmhouse is reminiscent of that book, and is based on a true story about an old farmhouse Blackall discovered while out walking, as she explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book. She learned that twelve children were born and raised there, and as she explored the falling-down house she found scraps and fragments that had belonged to the inhabitants and which allowed her to “imagine the lives lived within its walls.” This book is the fruit of that imagining.

Brief lines build up the story in a captivating rhythm that takes the popular form of cumulative songs, such as “This is the House that Jack Built,” and “Chad Gadya” (i.e., “One Kid” from the Passover Seder).

We learn, for example, about the kids who, in part:

“. . . painted the cat,
about which they lied,
for which they were scolded
and maybe they cried
and then were enfolded
in forgiving arms
in the serious room
(where the organ was played
and speeches were made)….”

The siblings:

“…whispered secrets,
played truth or dare,
and lost their teeth
and brushed their hair,
where they kept collections
of tin toy cars
and feathers and bones
and movie stars….”

I can fully imagine every single thing she describes so well and so succinctly. It is as evocative as, for example, Bill Bryson’s book about his childhood, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and yet is all contained within the standard length of a children’s picture book.

And while the imagined life of this family is charming, it is arguably the illustrations by two-time Caldecott Medalist Blackall that provide the most pleasure. The double-page spreads are warm, whimsical, and wondrous, filled with details that will have readers pouring over the pages in delight.

Blackall reports that she used “Chinese ink, watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil, as well as materials salvaged from a falling-down nineteenth-century farmhouse in New York State: wallpaper, composition books, newspapers, brown-paper bags, clothing, handkerchiefs, curtains, and string.” The result is absolutely lovely in every sense.

Evaluation: This book for readers 4 and up will enchant all ages, who will, no doubt as I have, return to its pages again and again.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2022

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Kid Lit Review of “The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World” by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz

In a Preface, the authors write:

“The most important fact to remember is that many of the inventions we see today, much of learning and discovery, happened centuries ago through the effort and hard work of ancient people in medieval kingdoms and faraway lands. But if you think that was Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, you’d be wrong. Think further back, to the seventh to tenth centuries. Consider the lands of Arabia, Iraq, Persia, and India.”

They then highlight the accomplishments of thirty Muslims, from the past to the present, who have made a difference in the world. Much of the foundations of modern science and philosophy were laid down by these people and others from the East, and yet, it is rare in the West to find accounts of who they were and what they did.

When one is picking a list of “top ten” or twenty or thirty, some of the selections will necessarily be disputed. Did Cat Stevens really rate a place over the architect Zaha Hadid or the mathematician Maryam Mirzahkani? But maybe the whole point is that there are definitely more than thirty “incredible Muslims” to highlight, and this book is a most welcome start in introducing some of the prime movers of world culture to the West.

Back matter includes a glossary (along with helpful pronunciation guide) and list of sources.

Illustrations by Saffa Khan are mostly portraits of the people highlighted.

Evaluation: This book for middle grade readers would make a great addition to any library. Given the very visual nature of today’s popular media, the text could have been broken up a bit more by more illustrations to add to the book’s drawing power, because these people and their accomplishments deserve to be better known. What young girl wouldn’t be inspired, for example, by the story of Fatema Mernissi, who grew up within the quarters of a harem in Morocco, and went on to become a sociologist and write groundbreaking works on feminism? In her thought-provoking book Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems Mernissi discusses the repression and pressures women in different societies face merely based on their physical appearance. Mernissi metaphorically compares the clothing size 6 to harems, pointing out that Arab women may wear veils, but Western women feel compelled to dress up in uncomfortable body-restricting garments, cover themselves in makeup, and spend most of their lives dieting. Both Muslim women and Western women are essentially controlled by patriarchal preferences that are detrimental to women’s freedom.

The stories of all these pathbreaking Muslims, their ideas, and their influence around the world will give Western readers a lot to think about.

Published by Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2022


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Review of “The Close” by Jane Casey

This is the tenth novel in the Maeve Kerrigan crime series, which is one of my favorites. Jane Casey’s writing is a cut above the usual offerings in this genre.

As this installment begins, DS Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent are tasked with undercover surveillance outside of London, posing as a couple who are dog sitting in a house on Jellicoe Close, in the suburb of West Idleford. They are particularly focused on the house across the street, where Judy Thwaites lives. Judy occasionally hosts vulnerable males on their way from a residential home to independent living. One of them, Davy Bidwell, was found dead by the police in an abandoned house four months earlier. He was severely undernourished, and showed signs of recent and not-so-recent fractures. More importantly, he was the brother-in-law of Rula Jacques, the mayor’s right-hand woman, and she was demanding answers.

The neighborhood, which seemed at first glance like an idyllic community, turned out to be a network of complex people hiding a number of problems and secrets. Under the surface, as Maeve found, “there was danger, jagged reefs under calm water.”

Besides the surveillance though, Maeve and Josh had their own issues to work through. Maeve was recovering (or more to the point, not recovering) from a toxic relationship that involved domestic violence. Josh lived with a partner, Melissa, and her son, Thomas. Josh was devoted to Thomas and made a commitment to him that he would always be there for him, no matter what happened between him and Melissa. This tied him to Melissa in ways he didn’t necessarily want, but that his love for Thomas demanded.

But between Maeve and Josh, there had always been some attraction, and the effort to maintain a professional distance while living together was another challenge in the case. As Maeve reflected about Josh, “He was my boss, my landlord, my friend. And, currently, he was my problem.”

Maeve and Josh’s arrival in Jellicoe Close and their efforts to get to know the residents catalyzes the unraveling of the residents’ secrets. Maeve in particular, as an attractive young woman, is in danger.

Evaluation: Jane Casey’s writing skill is impressive, putting us right inside Maeve’s head with remarkable ease and intimacy. She also spotlights abuse of and violence towards women with sensitivity and awareness of the complex array of factors that lead to women getting into bad situations. The murder team as a whole is a mix of deeply layered characters who seem quintessentially human; you feel as if you have met all of them before. As usual, I can’t wait to see what happens next to the recurring characters.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2023

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