Skip to main content

My Monticello: Fiction

Review

My Monticello: Fiction

MY MONTICELLO, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s slim debut collection, centers on a powerful novella of the same title. “My Monticello” capitalizes on the ongoing fascination with dystopian tales but uses it to explore themes of race, inheritance and community. It is told from the perspective of Da’Naisha Hemings Love, a secretly pregnant college student and a descendant of Sally Hemings, as she and others from her besieged Charlottesville, Virginia, neighborhood claim Jefferson’s famous house as their own.

A series of catastrophes --- natural, political and technological --- have created chaos and uncertainty, an “unraveling” in the United States. During the early weeks of demonstrations, fires and seeming accidents across the country, Da’Naisha stays with her boyfriend Knox in his dorm. But, after she is barred from entering the building by a mob of angry young men, she returns home to her grandmother, MaViolet, the family matriarch. As Da’Naisha and Knox arrive at MaViolet’s, the block is thrown into pandemonium; they, along with several others, clamor onto a transit bus and flee.

"Johnson’s book is fantastically written and honest with every word. Each of the stories are stunning in their emotional range, detail and scope, with compelling plots and characters that feel all too real."

The small group, with Da’Naisha at the wheel, find themselves at Monticello. The property is all but abandoned, watched only by three guards, one of whom will soon leave. While their arrival seems random, for Da’Naisha and MaViolet, it is a symbolic return as they are recognized as direct descendants of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings and the revered American Thomas Jefferson who lived there. Right away this chance community assesses their tools for survival; they have left home with almost nothing and must scrounge for food and clothing in the Monticello gift shop and neglected gardens. MaViolet, tired and unwell, is given Jefferson’s own bed to rest in, while Da’Naisha and Knox sleep in the adjacent greenhouse room. In the coming days, two other small groups will join them, but even as they pool their resources, it is hard to imagine how they will survive.

Desperation increases as a very real threat makes itself known, leaving the group with few viable choices. They have to decide whether to flee or to fight together from a house that represents both the world of American possibility and the very worst of our history. Even as the racist violence comes to attack the Black and Brown people in the sanctuary of Monticello, Da’Naisha must confront her feelings for Knox and her childhood love Devin; she struggles to understand her responsibility to each of them, to herself and to her unborn baby. Caught between the richness of Jefferson’s Monticello and the slave cabins, between the parallel but unequal graveyards, Da’Naisha races to record her story.

MY MONTICELLO contains five other stories, also concerned with race and how it is part of American history, place and identity. “Control Negro” turns fatherhood into a sociological experiment on race. “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” a title that is another theme in the collection, is about the power of names and places and the need to both embrace and escape those harmful or ill-fitting ones. Names and places, in this case the name of a beloved but misunderstood son and the state of Virginia, are also at the heart of “The King of Xandria.” The novella and each of these stories are sharp in their critique of American culture and history, yet they are tenderhearted in their portrayal of characters faced with injustice and hate and buoyed by love, acceptance, potential and the recognition of intrinsic worth.

Johnson’s book is fantastically written and honest with every word. Each of the stories are stunning in their emotional range, detail and scope, with compelling plots and characters that feel all too real. It grapples with issues of race and belonging in new and insightful ways and is highly recommended.

Please click here for a virtual tour that shows all the spaces and objects Johnson accurately and thought-provokingly details in “My Monticello.”

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 8, 2021

My Monticello: Fiction
by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250807158
  • ISBN-13: 9781250807151