Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Dutton Adult, ISBN 9780525953 616, January 2013

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave in the antebellum American South, became an accomplished seamstress and dressmaker, and purchased her own freedom and her son's. It's after this that this novel based on her life begins--when she is a dressmaker of rising distinction in Washington, D.C., in the months just before the start of the Civil War.

During this time, her patrons were both Democrats and Republicans, Unionists and secessionists. If it seems odd to modern readers that one of her best and favorite patrons at this time was Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, soon to be President of the Confederate States of America, it's really an illustration of how messy and complicated human relationships really are. Mrs. Davis values her skills and likes her personally; she's perfectly sincere, if utterly obtuse, when she asks Elizabeth Keckley to go with her family when they leave Washington for Montgomery, Alabama.

Despite the loss of half her customers, and the stress and tension of this time of impending war, Keckley is not long in finding her feet in the new conditions, and doesn't let slip the opportunity when she is introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, just days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States of America. This is the start of the heart of the novel, the years of her growing intimacy with Mrs. Lincoln and to a lesser degree the whole Lincoln family. Initially "just" a dressmaker, over time she becomes one of Mrs. Lincoln's most trusted friends and confidantes. She brings kindness, loyalty, and steadiness of character, in addition to her dressmaking skills, to the sometimes volatile and always emotional and impulsive Mary Lincoln.

Told entirely from Elizabeth Keckley's viewpoint, it tells the story of the war years and of Mary Lincoln's post-war years, struggling with grief, debt, and a (mostly unfairly) damaged reputation. As Keckley supports her friend, she begins to experience backlash herself, with painful consequences for her business and her friendships.

It's an interesting look at the mostly forgotten Elizabeth Keckley, as well as a sympathetic look at Mary Todd Lincoln.

Recommended.

I bought this book.