Plot Summary: Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave woman living in 1860’s Washington DC, is hired by many of the city’s female elite for her superior dressmaking skills. While serving many congressmen’s wives, as well as Varina Davis, Mrs. Keckley also receives an opportunity to sew for Mrs. Lincoln as her husband prepares to enter the White House. For the duration of the Civil War, Elizabeth is employed by Mary Lincoln as her personal modiste and she witnesses history in the making first hand. When tragedy strikes, what will become of the bond of friendship between these two very different women?
My Book Review: Jennifer Chiaverini is known for her fictional “quilt genre” books. Those haven’t really piqued my interest, but I have a few of her other historical fiction on my TBR. This is the first I’ve read by her, and I was impressed. Although it felt a little slow-reading for me at times, I came away from it being glad I learned a lot about the people on whom this story is based.
Elizabeth Keckley was a real person who was born into slavery in 1818. She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom at the age of 37 and eventually moved to the capitol and established a successful dressmaking business for herself. This lady was so interesting to learn about. I would relate more, but it would spoil the book.
We’ve heard about Antietam, Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, the fall of Richmond and John Wilkes Booth. But this is told from a friend of the First Lady’s point of view which makes the story unique. The most interesting part for me was the time related after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. I had no idea what happened to Mrs. Lincoln after the White House years. It was fascinating, but if you’re hoping this story ends in a grand fashion with fireworks you would be wrong. In some ways, it was heartbreaking.
In this story, we learn the kindness of a true friend in Keckley. She was a fashionable, dignified, self-educated woman with common sense and whom Mrs. Lincoln needed and turned to in times of trouble. Sometimes, Elizabeth could be too over-giving in a codependent sort of way. Mary Lincoln wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. But reading of Keckley’s love and loyalty was beautiful.
I was thinking about our modern era of social media. How easily one’s text can be misconstrued and before you know it there is a facebook battle or twitter backlash. We think our troubles are unique to our time, but in reading Mrs. Keckley’s story we find that is not true. How does she handle the media outrage against her? As a heroine– with perseverance, honesty, and right living despite not everything being made just this side of heaven.
If we think we have a terrible time of it in politics, it is maybe slightly comforting to learn that nothing new is under the sun. Lincoln was not elected by the majority of the population, and many Republicans tried to run against him during his second presidential campaign. Many “friends” deserted them and the news was full of criticism, slander and lies. But the country made it through, and history remembers Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents.
I think Chiaverini was pretty methodical in her historical research. I felt like the characters leapt off the page and it’s been fun to look up their photographs and feel like I know them. If you are a history buff, I think you will appreciate this one.
PS- As you can tell from my review of Lincoln here, it is one of my favorites. I was interested to know that Elizabeth puts in a cameo appearance as Mrs. Lincoln’s attendant in some key scenes!
The video below sums up her life in brief, but does contain spoilers:
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