Hambly (The Emancipator’s Wife, 2005, etc.) continues her fledgling historical-fiction career with a heartfelt, if sometimes confusing, tale of four of the United States’ founding mothers.
Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison and Sally Hemmings all take their turns here. The events that led up to the Revolution and the War of 1812 are retold through flashbacks and memories, and they reveal the domestic price of these conflicts: the family members abandoned, the farming opportunities lost. At times, the shifting perspectives, requiring readers to jump back and forth across decades, can be jarring. But on the whole, this sprawling domestic history works, revealing not only the likely character of these figures (and their more prominent spouses), but also the social undercurrents of political upheaval. That includes the upcoming Civil War, as Hambly tackles the issue of slavery from several angles. Madison, raised a Quaker, finds the concept of “owning” another human repulsive. Washington, raised on a Virginia plantation, only thinks about the bother that conflicting state laws impose. (She must move her slaves to keep them from being freed.) The most subtle and affecting portrayal, capturing the conflict in a heartbreaking light, is of Hemmings, who’s torn between a nurturing loyalty for and fierce hatred of her owner/lover Thomas Jefferson. “He will never be other than he is,” she realizes. “And things will never be other than they are.”
The author’s personal approach vividly brings familiar chapters in history to life.