Monday, January 28, 2013

322 (2013 #6). Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

by Jennifer Chiaverini

Best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series (of which I've read nearly all), this is Jennifer Chiaverini's first foray into the genre of biographical novels.

I read this book shortly after seeing the movie Lincoln, in which mixed-race former slave Elizabeth Keckley is more than a minor character.  Keckley was more than Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker, she also became a friend and a confidante, due to her role preparing Mrs. Lincoln for official functions (dress, hair, etc.).

I could see why Mrs. Lincoln and Keckley became friends.  Each of them was caught between two worlds.  Mrs. Lincoln was married to the leader of the Union, but had family members fighting for the Confederacy. Keckley, due to her position in the White House and her status as a free black woman, was caught between the white world and the black.

This book starts in Washington, D.C., in November 1860, when Lincoln is elected to his first term.  Keckley at that time was the dressmaker for the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, as well as other Washington elite.  At this point, Keckley was already 42, and Chiaverini weaves in some details from Keckley's past - her purchase of her freedom, her rape by a white man and subsequent son, George, and her separation from and death of her husband.

In many respects, the book is more about the Civil War and its effects on those living in Washington, D.C. at the time (well-researched by Chiaverini), and about Abraham and especially Mary Todd Lincoln, than it is about Keckley. Mrs. Lincoln dies on page 334, and the story ends 16 pages later, even though Keckley outlived Mrs. Lincoln by 25 years.  I think I will need to read Keckley's memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868), on which this book was based, particularly to learn more about Keckley's early life.

Not surprisingly for the author of a series of books tied to quilt-making, this book also found its inspiration in a quilt.  This one is attibuted to Keckley, and is supposedly made mostly from scraps of fabric of dresses she made for Mary Todd Lincoln.  According to an interview, Chiaverini came across a photograph of it while researching Civil War era quilts for the fourth book in her Elm Creek Quilts Series, The Runaway Quilt.  Later, while researching for another Civil War-era book in the series, The Union Quilters, she "realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work," Keckley's memoir.

Chiaverini said, "I longed to delve more deeply into Elizabeth Keckley’s history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted."  What comes across most strongly, though, is a more balanced portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln by someone (Keckley) more sympathetic to her than most of her contemporaries.

A good fictional complement to this book is An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, by Ann Rinaldi, which delves more deeply into the early years of these two women, before they meet.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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