An excerpt from the Kirkus Discoveries review:
Romance, slavery and the American Revolution roil this engrossing historical novel, based on the life of a minor Founding Father…. Semsch has done an enormous amount of research on (Francis Lightfoot) Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and it shows in her fine-grained study of Virginia’s planter aristocracy at a cross roads in history. Theirs is a world of elegance and refinement whose rituals of courtesy don’t quite hide the hierarchy and coercion that underlie them, especially in the fraught relationship between masters and slaves….The clashing currents of freedom and imprisonment that course through the saga make for a compelling read.
A gripping, richly textured portrait of colonial life in crisis. ―Kirkus Discoveries
From a reader’s perspective:
No one educated in Virginia schools lacks historical information about the Lee families so when I began this book, I did not expect to discover anything new. Was I ever wrong! Francis Lightfoot Lee is known mostly for his signature on the Declaration of Independence but this author’s historical research and intimate knowledge of the area created a book that I found hard to put down and even harder to part with as it came to a close. I found it especially interesting to read about how they coped with illnesses, the foods they ate, the relationships between families, slaves and masters and what travel was like in colonial days. This is a book that takes you behind the scenes of our country’s birthplaces and brings personalities and events to life in a way that allows the reader to feel present and involved. Amazon review.
As a descendant of the First Families of Virginia, Francis Lightfoot Lee became a devoted patriot at an early age. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758 at the age of twenty-four.Although a quiet unassuming man by nature, Frank Lee soon became associated—along with his brother, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Dabney Carr, George Mason, and others—in a group known as “those hot-headed young radicals.” Unwilling to submit to the outrageous taxes and demands of England’s King George III, Lee served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1775-1779, and was one of Virginia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence.
This political pedigree is common knowledge for readers of Virginia history, but what of Lee’s personal life? To answer that question, debut novelist and long-time Virginian Suzanne Hadfield Semsch spent years researching Lee’s life, interweaving her findings with a healthy dose of creative personalities. The result is The Lees of Menokin, a rich biographical novel that explores the deep love affair between Lee and his wife, Rebecca “Becky” Tayloe. The couple married in 1769, when Lee, a reputed ladies’ man, was thirty-four and Becky just seventeen. Despite the age difference, theirs was a love match, resulting in a steadfast marriage that weathered the turbulence of the American Revolution, the demands of political life, and the daily hardships of eighteenth-century life in a fledgling nation.
From Menokin, the Lee plantation home in Virginia, to Pennsylvania to Maryland and back again, this exciting novel will transport readers back in time. Walk in the footsteps of a revolutionary statesman and his politically astute wife who helped turn thirteen disparate colonies into the United States of America. Semsch’s novel will engender a better understanding of life in the early days of America through the lives, loves, and struggles of a historic family in colonial Virginia. Set against the backdrop of political unrest, war, and its aftermath, The Lees of Menokin is Francis Lee’s love story; love of his wife and family and love for the emerging nation.
This novel was researched and written in the late 1970s, but rewritten and published in 2009. Inspired by the ruin of mid-eighteenth century Menokin, located near Warsaw in Virginia’s Northern Neck, I set out to research the background and life of the original occupants, Francis Lightfoot Lee and his wife Rebecca Tayloe. During the months I was wandering around the grounds, located not far from the Rappahannock River, and poking through what was left of the buildings and grounds, the house was still standing except for one back corner. My research went on for a couple of years until I finally decided what I would do with it—and I wrote a novel. By that time I knew it would have to be fiction, biographical fiction, because the characters had become so real to me and I had begun to imagine what they said to each other.
After trying for what seemed a long time to find an agent or a publisher, I gave up and put it away. Then in 2008, a friend who had read it back then, asked what I had done with it and urged me to work on it again. Well, I did just that and Amazon’s Booksurge published it as a book-on-demand in 2009. There is now a foundation formed to preserve what is left of the house and restore what is possible—The Menokin Foundation—and they hosted me with a gathering in their Visitors Center to launch the book. You can visit the Menokin Foundation and learn all the wonderful things their educational center is doing right there on the plantation grounds to train architects, conservators, and environmentalists. They are working to encase part of the ruin in a glass shell to preserve floor boards and original woodwork. If you can’t get there in person, the website is: http://www.menokin.org.
A review by the Historical Novel Society:
While most Americans know something of the lives of founding fathers such as John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence are virtually unknown today. In The Lees of Menokin, author Suzanne Hadfield Semsch seeks to correct this oversight for Virginia signer Francis Lightfoot Lee, younger brother of the better known Richard Henry Lee.
The Lees of Menokin focuses on two parts of Francis Lee’s life—his political career in the Virginia House and later in the Continental Congress, and his marriage to Rebecca Tayloe, making it both a political saga and a love story. While Francis’ struggles and triumphs in the political arena are interesting from a historical standpoint, it is the love story between husband and wife that carries the book. Their intense love for one another and for their life together brings a sense of charm the characters tend to lack when apart. …. The close attention to detail in many aspects of colonial life, from politics to running a manor house and the tensions of slavery, do make this book a treat for those with an interest in Colonial America. And while Francis and Rebecca Lee may not have lived the most dramatic of lives, it is refreshing to see one of the lesser known founding fathers get a turn in the spotlight. — Megan Kitzman