book review: my dear hamilton

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
William Morrow, 672 pp.
Published April 3, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from William Morrow in exchange for my honest review.

A general’s daughter…

Coming of age on the perilous frontier of revolutionary New York, Elizabeth Schuyler champions the fight for independence. And when she meets Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s penniless but passionate aide-de-camp, she’s captivated by the young officer’s charisma and brilliance. They fall in love, despite Hamilton’s bastard birth and the uncertainties of war.

A founding father’s wife...

But the union they create—in their marriage and the new nation—is far from perfect. From glittering inaugural balls to bloody street riots, the Hamiltons are at the center of it all—including the political treachery of America’s first sex scandal, which forces Eliza to struggle through heartbreak and betrayal to find forgiveness.

The last surviving light of the Revolution…

When a duel destroys Eliza’s hard-won peace, the grieving widow fights her husband’s enemies to preserve Alexander’s legacy. But long-buried secrets threaten everything Eliza believes about her marriage and her own legacy. Questioning her tireless devotion to the man and country that have broken her heart, she’s left with one last battle—to understand the flawed man she married and imperfect union he could never have created without her…

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was an accomplished woman, whether you measure by the standards of her time or ours. Yet even those familiar with her husband's biography, like myself, may not know the full extent of her achievements. A Founding Mother in her own right, she is often treated as a supplement or footnote in Alexander Hamilton's story, which only recently returned to prominence in our nation's consciousness. Dray and Kamoie seek to remedy that through their meticulously researched historical fiction novel, rediscovering a voice lost to history.

My Dear Hamilton opens several years before Eliza meets her future husband, introducing a quiet but intrepid young woman. She had a frontier childhood, running wild over the countryside; she was given a name by the Iroquois in their language; she tended to wounded soldiers during the war. All of these experiences lay the foundation for a wife and mother equipped for battle: if not with muskets and cannons, then with words...and silence.

The opening chapters solidify her early assertion: "I was someone before I met Alexander Hamilton." Fire and moderation combine to make Eliza a formidable woman. She was not shaped by her husband—she was his compliment before they ever met. Dray and Kamoie find the perfect medium to make her accessible to a modern reader. Words and phrases lifted directly from letters of the time are sprinkled liberally throughout Eliza's memories, but her voice falls shy of modern speech while avoiding any of the linguistic flourishes found in 18th Century writing. It builds a sense of authenticity and consistency, making the leaps from fact into fiction feel believable.

However, despite the wide berth given to narrative license, two drawbacks remain. Eliza can, at times, come across as too prescient; after meeting Jefferson for the first time, she suspects that he may cause a rift in the friendship between James Madison and her husband. Rather than couched as a lamentation of hindsight she foresees future personal conflicts that, considering the revolutionary climate, few likely thought of at the time. I also disagreed with Dray and Kamoie's version of the unfolding of the Reynolds' affair. In their telling, Alexander confessed to his wife several years before he felt compelled to publish his scandalous pamphlet and secured her forgiveness long before his transgressions became public knowledge. However, from his brother-in-law's correspondence we know that Eliza maintained disbelief over the growing rumors as late as the summer of 1797.

Also, chapters would regularly end with a woeful sentence of foreshadowing: 'Little did I know that...', 'If only we had known...', etc. It's a frustrating literary device that tells the reader the best parts are yet to come, but they haven't arrived yet. Why isn't what I'm reading now the good part? Not to mention that it's quite clear Dray and Kamoie rely on a substantial portion of their readers already knowing Hamilton's story, their memories refreshed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This coy treatment of his fate—as if most readers don't know he died in a duel with Aaron Burr—can chafe at times.

I make these criticisms with a full understanding that, given the lack of letters and other papers from Eliza, the authors must make decisions in service of telling a story. (And, for those curious, they detail the logic behind those decisions in an illuminating authors' note at the end.) Despite some fiddling with the historical timeline, My Dear Hamilton remains steadfastly true to the character and spirit of Eliza and her contemporaries. Those who delight in Hamilton's pop culture comeback will easily lose themselves in his wife's perspective. For the girls and young women, in particular, who admire a certain musical, My Dear Hamilton goes where Broadway did not. The strong women that still served as supporting characters to a Founding Father rise to prominence here; not the "sequel", perhaps, that Angelica mentions in The Schuyler Sisters...but a worthy and necessary companion piece which reminds us an extraordinary man like Alexander Hamilton married an equally extraordinary woman.


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