March: America’s First Daughter, Stephanie Dray

Hello! This month has been so long. It always is because it is literally long with 31 days, but on top of that it’s the push up to spring that everyone needs and wants and needs and wants. So here we are! A month of reading! I bet you read more than 1 book this month, but I didn’t! So let’s get to it.

I really enjoyed America’s First Daughter. I was going to initially say that it was a gentle read. Even in its most tense moments, the most gasp-worthy, it was pleasant. And that is true! But then I hard-sobbed through the last three chapters. Is this the best book I’ve ever read? No. But is it a lovely foray into historical fiction? Yes!

I did find it particularly useful, during this time of political unrest paired with Hamilton FERVOR to read an intimate portrayal of the Jeffersons. The book is based on letters, so it feels very accurate as far as life events go. I had this naive epiphany moment about half way though where I realized the US has always been a mess, except for a handful of brief moments when we could all come together over a common goal. One of those moments was the Revolutionary War (And not everyone loved the direction we were taking). But not even 20 years after the war we were back to arguing and dueling and tearing down politicians over affairs and character smear campaigns. And though what’s happening right this second is pretty bad, it made me feel like this country is actually very resilient for all its fragility.

And though Hamilton and Jefferson didn’t agree or get along, it was nice to read something from the other side of the Hamilton love fest. It’s important to keep in mind that these men were all flawed people with big ideas. And the work that the women did, always there, always pushing, always behind the scenes, was immense. Without them things would be very very different.

Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, was a FORCE. And I am incredibly impressed with how much she accomplished in the face of so much death and so many BABIES. Holy god. She didn’t stop giving birth for like more than 20 years. Insane. And she still held down the fort during Jefferson’s presidency, she still managed the political aspirations of her husband, she still educated all of her kids.

I also thought the way the book handled slavery was really interesting. I was pretty uncomfortable with how I was reading it for the first half of the book. It seemed a little apologetic. But, because it was first person and because slavery becomes a main focus in the politics and the moral struggle of the characters, I felt like it was handled ok? I think it is probably controversial how they portray Sally Hemings and her devotion to Jefferson. I feel like even talking about any of this comes off so racist. This paragraph that I am writing, even. This topic is so fucked up and I truly don’t know how to read it or how to write it in historical fiction. So, you know, if anyone else has thoughts on this definitely let me know. I was conflicted and cringe-y most of the time.

I feel like most people are going to really like this book. But how did everyone else, especially in this political fraught time, read it? How did you feel about it? What stuck out?

For April we are reading Atwood!! Check out the full BIRL Book Club book list here. 

4 thoughts on “March: America’s First Daughter, Stephanie Dray”

  1. Unsurprisingly, I have forgotten any of the thoughts I had while reading it. But I did LIKE reading it… I read it really fast because I was sick for a weekend and I mostly laid in bed for two days. I remember being SUPER MAD that Martha didn’t follow her heart the first time. But by like the 4th or 5th time that she chose duty/father/husband/country?/etc over HERSELF, it was finally sinking in just how women in that era (and for another century?) operated. For the reason, I was really glad that the book was so long and involved. I think if it had been shorter, or if they hadn’t hit us over the head so many times with the lack of choices Martha felt she had, then I would’ve been left feeling angrier. But it gave me more time to try to assimilate and understand why she did what she did.
    Also! The childbirths and oh, the child deaths just gutted me.
    I haven’t read much hist fiction but I would consider more soon. I thought it was quite an immersive read…I was really invested in the characters and page turning to see.

  2. I’m about 70 pages in, and on the fence if I’m going to continue. I feel bad saying this, but I’m finding the narrator a bit…annoying. Duty first! Father first! And obviously this is a big point of the book, that those were the choices offered rich white ladies back then…but I dunno. Martha and I just aren’t connecting!

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