Sunday, October 27, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

DISCLAIMER: I received this book for free from the goodreads first reads program.

I really wanted to read this book! Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln are fascinating individuals and even more interesting is their complex relationship. Countless shelves can be filled with what has been written on Lincoln during the White House/Civil War years. And yet there always seems to be more to explore.

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jennifer Chiaverini uses the viewpoint of Mrs. Lincoln’s modiste, her friend and confidante, Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, to present a different, more personal, side of the Lincolns during the White House years.

Mrs. Keckley was born into slavery but was able to buy her freedom thanks to her skill as a seamstress. She moved to Washington, D.C. where she began making dresses for the elite of society, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis. She was uniquely placed to hear the women’s thoughts on the impending arrival of the president-elect, Mr. Abraham Lincoln, as well as all the talk of the increasing likelihood of southern states’ secession from the union.

After Lincoln’s inauguration, when many of Mrs. Keckley’s patrons left for destinations further south, she was able to secure a chance to make a dress for Mrs. Lincoln. Before long, she was Mrs. Lincoln’s primary modiste and a valued part of the Lincoln household. From that vantage point, she had an intimate knowledge of the Lincolns’ interactions with each other, of Mary Lincoln’s troubles (her extravagant expenditures, her social gaffes, her difficulties with her husband’s cabinet members, and her hot temper), and of some of President Lincoln’s political quandaries. However, her discretion and loyalty during those years was absolute.

Chiaverini does a very good job of presenting well-researched material. It’s a sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln but by no means a flattering one. As for the president, through Mrs. Keckley’s admiring eyes, he is always given the benefit of the doubt even when she doesn’t understand why is isn’t moving faster or farther to help her people.

In addition to the president and first lady, we are presented with the life story of Mrs. Keckley, a talented, level-headed, gracious woman who ends up quietly devoting a good portion of her life to the Lincolns. For a time, it is greatly to her benefit but after Lincoln’s assassination, she continues to stand by Mrs. Lincoln though she has nothing further to gain and, in fact, has quite a bit to lose.

This is a quiet, contemplative type of book. In some ways, it reads like a very interesting biography more than a novel. There is a lot of introspection, letter writing, overhearing of gossip, and sharing of news. The big historical events happen off-stage. So while it’s difficult to feel immersed in the story in an emotional way, it’s a wonderful imagining of the life of Mrs. Keckley and her view of the Lincolns.

I’m adding this on to my list of books for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.