My Monticello is a novella by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, whose writing has appeared in Guernica and the Guardian. After blackouts and storms engulf America, the neighbourhood of First Street, Charlottesville, comes under attack by violent white supremacists. A small group of families and friends flee for their lives, taking refuge in Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson. Over nineteen days, the group led by Da’Naisha Love - a descendant of Sally Hemings - finds ways to get by in their new world. But with the terror coming closer, they have to decide how far they are willing to go to survive.
My Monticello is a powerful novella that blends the past with the future to ring a warning bell for us all over race relations and the legacy of slavery. Johnson’s decision to warn readers of this impending doom felt brave and bold as if she was voicing what others are too afraid to say – or even think. Moreover, her use of Monticello as the setting of the story was excellent. As a former plantation and home to slave owner Thomas Jefferson, the setting left a lot for readers to unpack. Not only is the house incredibly well described, but the symbolism of what Monticello stood for in Jefferson’s day versus today was very interesting and also empowering in a sense for the characters.
Although the book is set in a time of extreme racial violence, the notion of a group of Black neighbours, friends and strangers taking refuge in the former house of a plantation owner and using it for their own gain felt like a reclaiming of power and history. It was wonderful to see Monticello transformed from a place with a dark past to somewhere where a group of strangers can come together to form a community and create their own slice of home and safety.
Johnson’s novella is beautifully written with unforgettable characters. It was especially great to see how Johnson delved into the character of Da’Naisha. Despite the story being under two-hundred pages long, Da’Naisha’s character feels well-developed with her own backstory. It was particularly revealing to see her relationship at play with her grandmother, Ma Violet. Their care and love for each other almost felt as though it was radiating off the pages at times. The love triangle between Da’Naisha, her current white boyfriend and her past Black boyfriend was also very compelling. It was interesting to see the dynamics of jealousy at play here and how this develops into the reveal of Da’Naisha’s pregnancy and her uncertainty over the identity of the father.
Overall, My Monticello is an unforgettable and thought-provoking novella that will unsettle you to your core.