By Kung Li Sun

AK Press


260pp/$17.00/August 2022

Begin the World Over
Cover by Herb Thornby

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

While many people are aware of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave and mistress, her brother, James, is less well known, despite his own accomplishments. Along with his other relatives, James became Jefferson's slave when he was eight years old and Jefferson married his half-sister, Martha Wayles. James worked as a chef for Jefferson, becoming the first American to train as a chef in France and receiving payment from Jefferson for his services despite his enslavement. While James remained Jefferson's slave until 1796, in Kung Li Sun's novel Begin the World Over, James fled from Jefferson in 1791, after a chance meeting in Philadelphia. Having grabbed his freedom earlier than in our own timeline, James Hemings sets out on his own course.

Running away from Jefferson in the company of Denmark Vesey, a first mate, James brings his skill in the kitchen to Captain Mai's ship. Having already witnessed the American Revolution and the beginning of the French Revolution, James is now witness to the start of the Haitian Revolution and sees Captain Mai help Romaine, the Prophetess escape the island. Arriving in Nuevo Orleans, James takes leave of Denmark and Captain Mai and settles in the city, creating a restaurant with the help of Romaine and eventually, Mary, a young slave who has also escaped her master, Andrew Jackson. Mary was forced to leave her sister behind and Jackson sold her off, causing Mary to swear an oath of vengeance, although a native American, Red Eagle, who feels responsible for Mary's sister's sale promises to find and rescue her.

While James would be completely happy running his restaurant in Nuevo Orleans and establishing his reputation and saving enough money to purchase his siblings from Thomas Jefferson, fate has other ideas for him. As his fame spread, Governor Charles Pinckney of South Carolina invited him to cook for a celebration on the occasion of the opening of a new race track. Although James is happy to decline the invitation, Red Eagle's suggestion that Mary's sister may be in Charleston leads to James giving in to Mary and Romaine's entreaties to go to the city, along with the potential of sparking a revolution in Charleston that Romaine sees as the natural extension of the Haiti Revolution.

Sun handles her cast of characters quite well. If Mary may be a little single-minded in her goals, the complexity Sun provides to James, Romaine, and Denmark more than make up for it. Their activities seem to go a little too smoothly, but there is the constant reminder that James and Mary are runaway slaves and they, and even Romaine, could be recaptured and punished at any time, especially when word comes that Andrew Jackson may be moving in their direction.

However, their activities are only a minor part of the novel, which really focuses on their discussions of freedom and the need to not only ensure their own continuing freedom, but spread that freedom to everyone else. The sheer number of class distinctions the novel makes based on race and slavery status indicates the fractured nature of the society in which they have to move, and the fracturing that is aimed to maintain a status quo that continues to support the privileged elite. Even if the specifics of chattel slavery don't continue to apply, Sun's book points out the similarities to contemporary American society.

Although a runaway slave, James is the voice of attempting to work within the system and eventually Romaine, Mary, Denmark, and Red Eagle have to move beyond him, even as he is the tie that binds them all together. Even if he isn't actively working with them, he is still in a position to benefit from their revolutionary zeal. For much of the novel, Sun portrays James' desire for success and to free his family as the driving force, but it is clear that he is merely an agent for forces beyond his control and only a small part of the larger story.

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