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‘My Thomas’ a literary tour de force [a review]

Posted by Roberta Grimes • November 07, 2013 • 0 Comment
Book Reviews

Below is a review of my novel, My Thomas, that appeared in The Patriot Ledger:

Roberta Grimes’s first major novel is a marvel, a historical novel whose detail, scope and depth seem much greater than the book’s slightly more than 300 pages. My Thomas captures the complicated nature and depth of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who died just ten years after the couple were married and whom Jefferson mourned the rest of his life.

The novel is presented as Martha’s own journal of her life with Thomas, and the hand of the author is neither seen nor felt anywhere in the book. The reader is totally immersed in Martha’s life, in the person she must have been.

Grimes’s mastery of the tone of life in late 18th century Virginia is complete. Her characters live, breathe and speak with such truth and realism that the reader is drawn unconsciously into the complicated and fascinating lives of Martha and Thomas.

Thomas Jefferson’s love for his Martha was so total that when she died, he destroyed their correspondence in his grief. This deep love fuels the lives of both characters as the tides of the Revolutionary War ebb and flow, and American independence becomes a reality.

Grimes’s poetic style captures the details and the currents of Martha’s life. My Thomas is a superbly crafted exploration of the lives of two individuals made complete by one another.

Each character has his or her history and complexities. Details are rich, and beautiful moments are bountiful in this world of Monticello and the American Revolution. Martha Jefferson’s mother died at the age of 20, only a few days after giving birth to her, and a miniature portrait of her was constantly about Martha’s neck or wrist.

Grimes’s skill as a writer becomes evident as Martha explains the importance of this portrait, her last connection to her mother.

“My miniature not two inches long seemed greater to me than the living lady. As I grew, my mother remained twenty years old, now older sister, now equal friend, until now she comes to be my junior. I protect and comfort her in my turn.”

Grimes also demonstrates a deep understanding of relationships and the nature of her characters. As Thomas Jefferson’s political career expands and the war widens in scope and savagery, My Thomas opens up to encompass the critical issues of the times. Slavery, the role of women and the meaning of freedom are issues explored through the prism of Martha and Thomas’s love.

Through his letters to her from Congress and Martha’s verbatim recording of many of their conversations, Jefferson becomes absolutely real and understandable. The first thought of both each day is for the other.

“What will make him loved as he deserves to be loved,” she writes of her husband, “will be what I shall write of the man himself, that there never has lived so kindly a man, so gentle and so completely good.”

Not since Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels, have I read such a fine historical novel.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were great friends and loyal correspondents. Their friendship, like the Jeffersons’ marriage, was strong and rare. Adams’s last words were of his friend, “Jefferson still lives.” Adams was right. Jefferson still lives, and he and his Martha can be found in the pages of My Thomas.

—Daniel L. Mallock, The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, MA

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