Published: May 7. 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
*I have seen the author of this book credited as both Sally Cabot and Sally Cabot Gunning.
Benjamin Franklin's Bastard by Sally Cabot is an absorbing and compelling work of literary historical fiction that brings to life a little-known chapter of the American Revolution -- the story of Benjamin Franklin and his bastard son, and the women who loved them both.
William Franklin, the son of Benjamin and his favorite mistress, Anne, is raised by Deborah, Benjamin's wife. A steadfast loyalist, he and his father cannot reconcile their wildly disparate views, causing a rift in the bond both thought unbreakable.
Fascinating and heartbreaking, Benjamin Franklin's Bastard is a gripping tale of family, love, and war, set against one of America's most fascinating periods of history.
Ah, good old Benjamin Franklin--the guy we all love even though we know he was a bit, well, smarmy. He was, of course, our Bacchanalian Founding Father and we all can identify that balding old man with the Mona Lisa smile who seems just so charming and eccentric.
Let's start with the fact upon which this novel is based. Benjamin Franklin had a long relationship with a woman named Deborah Read. They were never legally married, but she became his common-law wife after they had lived together for 7 years. Into this relationship, he brought his illegitimate son, William (my guess is that Franklin had more than one illegitimate child, but William is the only one he acknowledged). Benjamin and Deborah also had two children together, Francis and Sally. The identity of William's biological mother is not known.
This is where Cabot starts her novel. She begins with Deborah meeting Benjamin, who soon leaves for England and, in doing so, leaves Deborah in the lurch. Cabot then introduces Anne, a woman born into the lower classes and, while working in a tavern, meets Benjamin Franklin and the two begin a relationship which results in William. I don't want to go too much into the plot because I think in doing so I would be ruining part of the experience of reading this book.
I do want to talk about how Cabot handles her characters. None of the major characters are heroes or heroines are ever completely likable (there is one secondary character, Grissom, who I did find very sweet). But they also are not unlikable. It is easy to see how Deborah develops into the woman she ultimately becomes because, well, almost anyone in her position would do the same. It is also easy to understand the motivation behind many of Anne's decisions.
This novel is written in 3rd person, but Cabot goes into the minds of Deborah, Anne, and, later, William. She does not, however, go into the mind of Benjamin and I think that was a very wise choice on her part. Most readers will go into this book with an idea about Benjamin Franklin and, while she doesn't destroy this view, she definitely adds dimension to it and makes you think about him in a bit of a different way. She does knock Benjamin Franklin off his pedestal and puts him down among the rest of the humans--something Franklin himself probably would have hated, but, hey...not even Benjamin Franklin can escape humanity.
There was another thing about this book I really appreciated and I'm going to be a bit vague about it as I don't want to reveal any plot points for readers not familiar with the Franklin family, but stay with me. Both Patriot and Loyalist views are expressed in this book and Cabot very skillfully illustrates that both of these views have value and that one side is not right and the other is not wrong. In my reading experience, the American Revolution and the European theater of World War II are really the only two conflicts where writers are able to get away with clearly labeling "good guys" and "bad guys." I'll leave the Nazis out of this, but I find this really frustrating when it comes to the American Revolution. I find it really frustrating that characters who have Loyalist sentiments are always painted as villains (with the exception of one book I read a year or so ago, where the Patriots were the bad guys...it was still annoying on the other side of the table). Cabot, however, doesn't do that and I believe that is a very important take away from this book.
All in all, Cabot's writing is readable and enjoyable. I did feel, in the second half of the book, she tended to drop and pick up Anne a bit and wish she had a bit more continuity with that character, but other than that, I have no complaints--but plenty of admiration--for this novel.
I really would recommend this book to anyone to read. Yes, it is a historical novel set during the Colonial and Revolutionary period, but I do believe it transcends its setting and genre and makes for an excellent read.
I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.