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Wolf by the ears
Book
1991
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Trade Reviews

  Booklist Review

Gr. 8-12. Thomas Jefferson once said that in slavery, "we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation the other." This dichotomy is evident in Jefferson's life: though he disavowed slavery, his home was filled with slaves, including some rumored to be his own children. Rinaldi uses Harriet Hemings, daughter of Jefferson's longtime mistress, Sally, and purportedly his child, as her heroine. Harriet loves her life at Monticello, where she is more servant than slave, but she also anxiously wonders about who her father is. Sally has extracted a promise from Jefferson that all her children will go free at age 21, but Harriet is unsure about taking this liberty and is even more frightened about the possibility that she will have to pass as white to make her way in the world, though in fact because of her ancestry, she is more white than black. The novel is written in diary form, and readers will be not only engrossed by Harriet's decisions, but also caught up in the moral dilemmas facing most of the characters. It is unfortunate that the confused genealogy of the Jefferson family intrudes on the story, at times stopping readers short as they try to remember who's who (though Rinaldi makes a game effort to keep explaining it). Some may also be offended by a statement made by Harriet's betrothed, a white man who is ready to help her pass, in part, because of her lighter skin color: "I'm not saying that because your skin is almost white you should be free while others around here remain slaves. I am saying that when one comes face to face with a person who is almost white and that person is a slave, it underscores the awfulness of the practice we have allowed to come to pass in this country." For the most part, though, Rinaldi writes moving historical fiction, getting inside her characters, both black and white, and showing how slavery distorted their perceptions of themselves and each other. Harriet, her brothers, even Thomas Jefferson cannot really examine themselves as long as they are locked in the dark box of slavery. ~--Ilene Cooper

  Kirkus Review

Harriet and her brothers, children of Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, have good reason to believe that their beloved master is also their father. At 19, Harriet begins a journal describing the events leading to her difficult decision to claim her promised freedom at 21. Leaving Monticello and her family seems unthinkable, but after Jefferson's grandson-in-law assaults her she realizes what the future holds if she stays. The Jefferson's arrange for her to pass as white, as her older brother has done. Rinaldi bases her story on Fawn Brodie's highly speculative theories (largely discredited by recent historians) concerning Jefferson's possible children. She provides a bibliography and a historical note explaining how she has expanded on Brodie's account in order to explore her own theme of alienations, but, lamentably, she fails to make clear that the Hemings' parentage is very much in doubt, or to distinguish between real and invented characters. The novel itself rambles and is repetitive; its style echoes the period but not consistently--at times the author's voice, with whiffs of modern revisionism or political correctness, supercedes Harriet's. Rinaldi does draw Jefferson's complex ambivalence toward his slaves credibly and with sympathy; but Harriet's privileged situation and her agonized decision to abandon both her home and her minimally evoked blackness remain unconvincing. A valiant, earnest try, but not a successful one. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
Harriet Hemings, rumored to be the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his black slaves, struggles with the problems facing her--to escape from the velvet cage that is Monticello, or to stay, and thus remain a slave.
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