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Review: America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

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In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

Americas First Daughter - coverFrom her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.




It was my haste that made me stumble halfway down the stairs. Only a wild, wrenching grasp at the carved wooden rail saved me from a broken neck. Alas, the heavy fall of my feet echoed up the staircase and drew my father from his rooms.

“Patsy?” he called, peering over the bannister.

I froze, breathless, my belly roiling with shock and anger and revulsion. I ought to have pretended that I didn’t hear him say my name. I ought to have hurried on, leaving him with only the sight of my back. I ought never to have looked up at him over my shoulder.

But I did look up.

There on the landing my father loomed tall, a tendril of his ginger hair having come loose from its ribbon, his shirt worn without its neck cloth, the stark white linen setting off more vividly the red flush that crept up his throat. Was it shame for his behavior with Sally or . . . ardor?

On the heels of giving witness to his behavior, the thought was so excruciatingly horrifying that heat swept over me, leaving me to wish I’d burn away to dust.

“Are you hurt?” Papa asked, hoarsely.

I couldn’t reply, my mouth too filled with the bitter taste of bile. Finally, I forced a shake of my head.

He glanced back to the door, then back at me, his hand half-covering his mouth. “Were—were you at my door just now?”

“No,” I whispered, as much as I could manage under my suffocating breathlessness. And how dare he ask if I’d been at his door when neither of us could bear the honest answer? Even if Papa didn’t know what I’d seen, he knew what he’d done.

He ought to have been downstairs with us, reacquainting himself with the little daughter who still didn’t remember him. He ought to have been sipping cider with the young man who fancied me, giving his permission to court. He ought to have been doing a hundred other things. Instead, he was preying upon my dead mother’s enslaved half-sister—and the wrongness of it filled my voice with a defiant rage.

“No, I wasn’t at your door.” I held his gaze, letting him see what he would.

My father paused on the precipice, clearing his throat, absently smearing the corner of his lips with one thumb. “Well—well. . .did you need something?” As if my needs were at the forefront of his thoughts.

My fingers curled into fists as a lie came to me suddenly, and sullenly. “I was coming up to fetch my prayer book.” Surely he knew it was a lie, but I didn’t care. If he challenged me, I’d lie again, without even the decency of dropping my eyes. I’d lie because between a father and a daughter, what I’d witnessed was unspeakable. And I’d learned from the man who responded with silence to my letters about politics or adultery or the liberation of slaves. . . .

Papa never spoke on any subject he didn’t want to.

Neither would I.

“Are you certain you weren’t hurt,” Papa finally murmured, “ . . . on the stairs?”

Rage burned inside me so hotly I thought it possible that my handprint might be seared upon the railing. I bobbed my head, grasped my skirt, and took two steps down before my father called to me again.


I couldn’t face him, so I merely stopped, my chest heaving with the effort to restrain myself from taking flight. “What?

A heavy silence descended. One filled with pregnant emotion. I feared he might be so unwise as to attempt to explain himself, to justify or confess his villainous lapse in judgment, but when he finally spoke, it was only to ask, “What of your prayer book?”

Swallowing hard, I forced words out despite the pain. “I’ve reconsidered my need of it. I’m not as apt as some people to forget what it says.”




“ . . .  my whole life has been, in some sense, a song that could never be sung without you. There is almost nothing I’ve ever been that I could’ve been without my dear and beloved daughter, the cherished companion of my early life, and nurse of my old age.”

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Indeed, the above sentiment of an aged and dying Thomas Jefferson to his daughter, Pasty (Martha) Jefferson Randolph is the driving force behind Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter.

Historical fiction, when done well, is to this reader, like an exquisite meal — layered chapters in lieu of courses, but both leaving the participant nurtured, entertained, and perhaps, wanting for a bit more. Authors Dray and Kamoie do not disappoint.

After Jefferson’s death, his daughter, Patsy undertakes the cataloging of her father’s papers. As she encounters certain letters, Patsy’s reflections take the reader back to that time, recounting her life as the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers.

Authors Dray and Kamoie, skillfully utilize the letters as devices, carefully constructing Patsy’s character as she lives her life, each chapter revealing more detail of this extraordinary woman.

Divided into three parts, Patsy takes us back to her childhood in Part One — Dutiful Daughter. One vivid memory is that of fleeing the British, who are determined to capture the then Governor of Virginia, her father. Patsy recalls a hasty retreat from Monticello with her mother — a weakened and ill Martha  — along with her younger sister, Polly. It’s a riveting passage that reminds one how very fragile is the nature of both country and life.

Upon the death of her mother, Martha, is it upon the young Patsy to bear witness to the depth of her father’s grief, and it can be said with a bit of certainty that, without Patsy’s stalwart presence in the years after her mother’s death, Thomas Jefferson would not have survived. Even as acting Minister to France, be it in the ballrooms or salons of Paris, or back home in his beloved Monticello, it is Patsy that Jefferson looks upon as his anchor.

Part Two – Founding Mother, recounts Patsy’s years as the wife of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.

A handsome and dashing Virginia plantation owner, Randolph sweeps Patsy off her feet — a feat, if you will, considering Patsy’s heart lies elsewhere. Her first and true love, Jefferson’s assistant William Short, is sent on assignment after her father determines Short isn’t suitor material for his beloved daughter.  However, Jefferson does approve of Randolph and agreeably gives Patsy to him in marriage.

After reading Dray and Kamoie’s account of the Jefferson-Randolph marriage, one wonders why Patsy married at all.  Suffice to say, Patsy was a dutiful and caring wife who gave Randolph twelve children, raising eleven (losing one daughter in infancy). Patsy’s thoughts continually duel between her duty as wife to Tom, and her place beside her father — so much so that many years later, Tom (rightfully) charges Patsy —

“Your father is your true worry.  No one can ever shine so brightly in your eyes. He’s always your first concern.”

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Part Three — Mistress of Monticello, details Patsy’s life upon her return to Monticello with Tom (now a drunkard and financial failure) and their children. Also chronicled are the final years of her father’s life. Patsy comes to terms with her failed marriage, her father’s love for Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s death and its implications, and, ultimately, herself.

Throughout America’s First Daughter, one is struck with the absolute sense of place and duty that permeates Patsy’s being.  She is acutely aware that she has the power to shape history, not only through her influence on her father, but with the weight of power she has inherited simply by being the daughter of Thomas Jefferson.  In a society that regards women as property, Patsy deftly maneuvers herself into a male-only society that welcomes her regard.

The crafting of Patsy’s character is subtle and on point — she is neither shallow nor a martyr, nor is she imperious. Rather, Patsy is a study in reserve. By any measure, Patsy is the Amazon/Angel that William Short christened her to be. Case in point  — it is only upon the death of her father, that Patsy allows herself to feel the full measure of grief over the death of her mother, Martha — forty-four years earlier.

Authors Dray and Kamoie succeed in embroidering Patsy’s narrative in rich but not overwhelming detail. Thomas Jefferson is given his full measure as the brilliant co-founder of a nation, but truthfully characterized as a man with feet of clay. The secondary characters all have their purpose — no one is extraneous, and their behaviors fit the mindset of the times. This reader found passages to be gripping at times, heartbreaking and infuriating at others. Dray and Kamoie rightfully expose slavery as the sin of this nation. Sally Hemmings is written with a grace and strength of character equal only to Patsy’s. The decline of Thomas Randolph is documented in such a way that the reader recognizes the unavoidable tragedy but is still compelled to witness his descent. William Short, the man of Patsy’s heart, appears and disappears throughout the story and seems to be written as the voice of her conscience. This reader found the story of their romance to be simply another example of Patsy’s sacrifices for the good of her father and country.

Ultimately, it is the character of Patsy, not her father, that lingers curiously in the mind. Credit Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie in crafting an excellent story based upon a fascinating woman. America’s First Daughter will leave the reader with a sense of insight into the mind, heart and life of the most remarkable Patsy Jefferson Randolph.


*An ARC of this story was received by William Morrow in exchange for an honest review.*

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About Stephanie Dray:

DrayAuthorPhotoSTEPHANIE DRAY is an award-winning, bestselling and two-time RITA award nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her critically acclaimed series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into eight different languages and won NJRW’s Golden Leaf. As Stephanie Draven, she is a national bestselling author of genre fiction and American-set historical women’s fiction. She is a frequent panelist and presenter at national writing conventions and lives near the nation’s capital. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the stories of women in history to inspire the young women of today.


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About Laura Kamoie:

IMG_3248LAURA KAMOIE has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, Laura Kaye. Her debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.

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2 responses to “Review: America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

  1. kpsimmon March 5, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    ❤ Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephanie Dray March 5, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Love this review! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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