Richard Mentor Johnson, 9th vice-president of the US under Martin Van Buren, looks back on his childhood in Great Crossing, Kentucky—his parents and many siblings, the society they moved in, and their relations with their slaves. Richard’s partner, Julia Chinn, an octoroon (one-eighth African), is one of these, and she becomes not only his mistress but, though prohibited by racist law from marrying, treated as his wife. Julia’s mother Henrietta is cook for the Johnsons, and Julia is his mother’s maid.
We follow Richard through a failed engagement—to a seamstress, just not high enough status for Richard’s mother Jemima—and we experience the contradictions of the inter-relations between slaves and masters of the time. Julia’s skin is fairer than that of the Johnson siblings, yet she is not free. As his brothers become colonels and generals and his sisters marry well, he’s off to Washington as a Congressman, leaving Julia to pine. He plans to take her to Washington with him and pass her as white. He backs Jefferson; he argues for war with England. He fights the Shawnee and kills Tecumseh, but he champions education for Indians.
We also follow the life of Julia. She watches her mother die, and it gives her a desire to be a healer, fostering a closeness with Dr Theobald. Miz Jemima dotes on her, and the sisters are jealous. She fends off advances from Richard’s brothers and their friends. Richard elopes with her, then has the audacity to try to seat her with the family at church. He tries to make his plantation at Blue Spring a haven for their love, but their marriage causes a huge ripple in the Johnson family and threatens his political career. Miz Jemima won’t speak to her. But Julia bears up with fortitude. She waits, without him, to manage a resentful staff at Blue Spring while he’s in Washington, suffering pregnancies, miscarriages and the birth of two daughters.
Their daughters are raised as free, are educated, and marry white men; however, the law disinherits them on grounds of their ‘illegitimacy’.
I wish I could give this book at least 6 stars. This is fictionalised biography worthy of Hilary Mantel. The writing is absolutely superb, and the style is in keeping with early 19th century, which is important to me. I can’t help but love a writer who uses the word ‘passel’. It’s tightly edited, and there are no wasted words; every one is a jewel. The characterisation is gorgeous. The little details of everyday life—the newness and fragility of the American political system, the feuds and duels between the Founding Fathers, the precariousness of life during warfare, the tremendous ordeal of childbirth—fully transport you into the period.
It was additionally fun for me reading this book as one of Richard’s sisters-in-law, Verlinda Clagett Offutt, was my 3rd cousin 4x removed.