Barbara Hambly writes that PATRIOT HEARTS "is a book about the relationships of four women --- Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sally Hemings and Dolley Madison --- with their families, with their men, with the societies they lived in, with the choices their men made…and with one another."
The setting changes from the cities of Philadelphia and Washington, to the pastoral farm and plantation lands these women called home. The action begins in Washington City on August 24, 1814. Dolley Madison gathers household goods, personal belongings and memorabilia from her past three predecessors into a rough cart. Forced to flee the city due to approaching British troops, she gives in to her staff's demands. Admiral Cockburn has pledged to parade James and Dolley Madison through the streets, shackled and fettered. Dolley's concern is for her "Jemmy," not herself. They plan to join one another safe in the countryside, far from the chaos of the Washington scene.
Hambly uses chronology to keep the reader focused on the happenings of the times about which she writes. In 1787, life at Mount Vernon Plantation in Fairfax, Virginia, centers on planning the next season's crops, tending to the gardens and sharing in the care of a family, complete with grandchildren. Martha's heartrate rises with the announcement of a visitor, James Madison. Since George retired from active military command after the revolt against England, Madison has been pressing him to become the new country's first President. George has refused, but now there is a new urgency in Madison's vocal thundering.
Martha had joined her husband in his winter encampments during the war years, warring within herself about her personal loyalties: home at Mount Vernon with children and family, or at the side of her husband near the battlefield. It is a choice she cannot condemn or condone. For years, she is convinced that public life has destroyed her family's stability.
Abigail Adams rushes to her daughter Nabby's side to welcome her first grandchild into the world. In the eight war years, Nabby had grown more quiet and withdrawn as a child; Abigail often wonders if her little girl will break a long period of silence. Now, the shared bonds of motherhood will begin the healing process. Nabby's husband, Col. William Smith, is not the soulmate Abigail would have chosen.
Dolley Madison continues with her escape plan in 1814 and remembers her own initial experience with life apart from a strict Quaker upbringing, dictated by a stern father. She is being coerced into marriage with a Quaker man, John Todd, whom she doesn't love; instead, she wants to marry a man who will make her smile.
The fourth patriot woman recorded in this book is Sally Hemings, mistress of Thomas Jeffferson. Sally, a mulatto slave woman, holds a unique place in presidential history, from the perspective of one who does not entertain as the President's hostess. Instead, she keeps the home plantation healthy, yearning for Jefferson's return there. His daughter, Patsy, retains control of Washington entertainment. Before his election, Jefferson has been outspoken about states' rights. Widowed, he is an ambassador to France when Patsy is a young girl; he has formulated much of his political ideology. Sally accompanies them to France and lives publicly as his mistress. Social mores in France are more accepting of interracial coupling than in the American culture. When their return to the United States is imminent, Sally faces the hard choice of remaining in France as a free woman or living her former life as a slave.
All in all, PATRIOT HEARTS is well-written and holds the reader's interest. Martha Washington, though a reluctant Presidentress, becomes the steadfast thread linking the other three. Hambly shows the evolution of political change in Washington but spices history with her own take on the personalities of the women involved.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 30, 2007
Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers