Picks and Pans Review: Sally Hemings

updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Barbara Chase-Riboud

Did Thomas Jefferson carry on a love affair with a mulatto slave who produced seven illegitimate children? Historians are uncertain, but in her first novel Chase-Riboud—a Philadelphia-born sculptor and poet who now lives in Paris—has blended extrapolation with imagination to create an enchanting love story. Her Sally Hemings is a complex, tender and strikingly beautiful slave of 15 who falls in love with Jefferson, a 44-year-old widower. The affair begins in Paris in 1787 while he is the U.S. ambassador, and then, rejecting a chance for freedom, she follows him back to Virginia, where their first child is born. Until his death in 1826, she remained his lover, entering his bedroom through a secret staircase. Jefferson burned his diaries and love letters, so Chase-Riboud builds her story on conclusions drawn by, scholar Fawn Brodie in her voluminously documented Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Fiction or not, Chase-Riboud's vivid characterizations make for a captivating tale set in a fascinating period. (Viking, $10.95)

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