The issue of slavery and the Founding Fathers is not an easy or comfortable one. It’s hard for adults to reconcile the idea that someone who we respect and admire was also someone who participated in something so obviously wrong and evil. There is the tendency to either judge historical figures harshly by our own modern standards or to not hold them accountable at all and chalk it up to “those were different times”. It’s an even tougher topic to explore with kids, especially younger kids who tend to see things in terms of good and bad. Was George Washington a good man who was the “Father of Our Country” or a bad slave owner? Marfe Ferguson Delano does an excellent job in this book at looking at these questions and dealing with the slavery issue with a deft hand.
Delano used many primary source documents from Mount Vernon as the basis for the telling of the story of Washington’s “People”. She outlines his transformation from a plantation owner who considered it a duty to punish his slaves and very much viewed them as property rather than people to a man who seems to have sincerely come to believe that slavery was morally wrong. In each chapter Delano highlights one Mt. Vernon slave which emphasizes the individuals involved and makes the topic seem more real than just reading about generic slaves. It’s one thing to hear about slaves that lived at Mt. Vernon, it’s another to read their names and to hear about their families and their personalities.
Throughout the book, Delano includes photos of historical interpreters, primarily from Mt. Vernon. This could be viewed as a bit confusing for kids who may flip through and see a photograph and think it’s real. The captions do clearly state that these are historical interpreters, however, a few photos fail to include this information. I think the photos could be a little distracting, but they make sense since the book was written with Mount Vernon and the historical reenactment program is a major part of the work of the estate.
And I’ll leave you with a few photos of our own from Mt. Vernon.
This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.