Ponderous but sagacious and ultimately rewarding.

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

  • National Book Critics Circle Finalist

  • National Book Award Winner



The unusual history of an enslaved family whose destiny was shaped over the course of four decades by Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon-Reed (Law/New York Law School, History/Rutgers Univ.; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 1997, etc.) grudgingly comes to a sympathetic view of Jefferson, who inherited the mixed-race Hemings family when he married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. By 1784, he was a widower living in Paris as head of the American commission, accompanied by manservant James Hemings, whom Jefferson took along so he could receive training as a French chef. In 1787, James’s 14-year-old sister Sally came to Paris with Jefferson’s daughter Polly; sometime during the French sojourn, she became her master’s mistress. Back in Virginia, Jefferson installed Sally in a fairly pampered life at Monticello; he sired her numerous children and emancipated them upon his death in 1826. The author painstakingly sifts through the evidence about their relationship and examines the convoluted attitudes that influenced Jefferson’s behavior. Sally’s white father was also Martha Jefferson’s father; Jefferson’s wife and his slave mistress were half-sisters who owed their radically different destinies to the Anglo-Virginian system of bondage. The colonists had adopted the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem (you were what your mother was) rather than the English rule (you were what your father was). By the perverse logic of this system, any drop of white blood ameliorated the work slaves were assigned and their chances of being freed. Jefferson encouraged James Hemings and his brother Robert to learn skills and to move freely in the world. There is no clue in the life of this intertwined family that Gordon-Reed does not minutely examine for its most subtle significance. She concludes that Jefferson was above all a most private man, who espoused abhorrent racial theories in public but behaved relatively well (by the standards of the era) toward his own slaves.

Ponderous but sagacious and ultimately rewarding.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-393-06477-3

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2008

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

Did you like this book?

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet