A tribute to a strong woman during the Civil War era
Jennifer Chiaverini, the New York Times bestselling author of the Elm Creek Quilts novels, strays from her series with her latest book, "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker." This historical fiction piece recounts the story of dressmaker and former slave, Elizabeth Keckley, who bought her freedom and her son's and established herself as one of the most prominent modistes of the Civil War era in Washington, D.C.
At the beginning of the novel, Keckley sews dresses for Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, before the Civil War. When Southern states secede and Davis becomes the president of the Confederate states and moves out of Washington, Keckley has an interview with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and is hired as her personal dressmaker.
If you know nothing of Keckley when you open the book and are a Civil War fan, the beginning of this novel is captivating. The former slave's spirit and love for life are remarkable, in spite of the hardships she faced. The inside look into the Washington elite during this period also is fascinating and gives history lovers some new perspective on the wives and their husbands.
As the novel progresses, Chiaverini includes several details of the Civil War and various battles, which were less engaging than the personal moments between Mrs. Lincoln and Keckley and especially between President Lincoln and the dressmaker, like when she combs his hair before big events. The "history lessons" slow the pace of the novel in some parts.
It's always interesting to see how writers work in historical details that are well-documented and well-known, such as many of President Lincoln's speeches, the death of his son and, of course, his assassination.
Readers will be captivated during these accounts, as they get a personal look into the Lincoln home. Keckley became a friend and confidante to Mrs. Lincoln during the Civil War, and the tragic events in April 1865 affected her and eventually her livelihood.
As many people know from other books and movies, Mrs. Lincoln is a controversial and often hard-to-like figure. In this book, she is demanding, of course, but also kind and sympathetic through the eyes of Keckley. This is a refreshing look at one of the most famous first ladies of all time.
Chiaverini continues the dressmaker's story after the president's death and shares through the story the debt that Mrs. Lincoln incurred through her extravagant spending while trying to "decorate" the White House and make it worthy of the office.
Keckley tried to stick by her as long as she could, and this is a touching part of the novel.
One problem occurs when the former slave writes her own memoir, "Behind the Scenes, Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," which interested readers can download for free if they own a Kindle.
The memoir was considered controversial, and some later critics didn't believe that she actually wrote it.
Because of the inside look at the Lincolns that Keckley provides and a few other events with the book that happened beyond the writer's control, Mrs. Lincoln distanced herself from her former employee and friend. Keckley grew very upset over the reception of her memoir and relationship with Mrs. Lincoln. This section of "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" is interesting, especially for anyone who has tried to publish something.
The end of Keckley's life is quite sad, and Chiaverini didn't try to put a positive spin on it. She stayed true to the memory and spirit of Keckley, which is important for historical fiction authors.
This well-researched novel is a tribute to the life of Keckley and is a fascinating read for those interested in Civil War history, the Lincolns or even fashion of the 1800s. It brings attention to the life of a strong woman whom many of us would not even know existed, if not for Chiaverini's work.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.