THE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER by Barbara Chase-Riboud


Email this review


 With this so-so historical novel, Chase-Riboud (Echo of Lions, 1988, etc.) returns to the scene of her first work, Sally Hemings (not reviewed), to pick up the story of Harriet Hemings, the daughter of slave Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson promised Sally Hemings that their children, who were slaves at Monticello, would be allowed to ``stroll'' at 21--that is, their running away would be ignored but they would not officially be freed. When she reaches that age in 1822, Harriet Hemings is escorted to Philadelphia by an old friend of Jefferson's, changes her name to Harriet Petit, and begins passing as a white woman. The juicy premise delivers some insights into the nature and definition of race, but Chase-Riboud's clumsy use of history gives some sections the feeling of a virtual-reality game- -now you are watching Sojourner Truth give her famous ``Ain't I a Woman'' speech; now you are witnessing discussions about the Dred Scott case. Broader historical information is less intrusive, like Petit's close friendship with Charlotte Waverly, which eventually becomes a sexual relationship of the type that was common among middle-class women at the time. Although Petit narrates most of the time, she is interrupted intermittently by other characters- -including Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln--whose sections end with preachy proclamations. It is unclear exactly what these are meant to accomplish, since they use formal language to announce facts that certainly would not have been made public at the time. In any case, these voices are all less effective than Petit's. A scene in which she returns to Monticello after Jefferson's death and spies a list of slaves to be auctioned off--including her own mother entered at 50 dollars--is particularly chilling. Lacking literary finesse, but still powerful enough to tarnish the reputation of yet another dead white man.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1994
ISBN: 0-517-59861-2
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1994