Synopsis (From GoodReads):
In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.
In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.
Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.
I love historical fiction. It is one of my favorite genres because I love to imagine how people lived long ago. Even though people are basically still the same over the years, there are unique challenges in various time periods that I find fascinating. How do women survive in a male-dominated world? How did one handle a society where reputation was everything? I was particularly interested in this book because it was about an African-American woman who had bought her freedom. Even though she was not a slave, what problems did she face in 1860's Washington D.C.?
Although this was a well-written book, I didn't feel it added any insights into what it would be like for a free African-American at that time.
What I Liked:Characters:
Mary Lincoln is the major focus of this book. As
Elizabeth Keckley becomes Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, she is present in the White House to witness history in the making. Mary Lincoln has a larger than life persona as she tries (and fails) to navigate the Washington social scene. The great tragedy is that she acts as though she is due a life of esteem, but doesn't understand that a First Lady needs to earn it. One doesn't simply get respect because you are married to the President.
The other fascinating thing about Mary Lincoln is that this was a portrait in how mishandling money was treated one-hundred and fifty years ago. It was a very serious matter if one was in debt, particularly for a woman. I was surprised that her family didn't help her out more, but given how she alienated most people, I suppose I should have seen this coming.
What I Didn't Like:Show, Not Tell:
As a person who works in a school, I have seen how teachers teach writing. There is a phrase we use with young learners: Show, not tell, the action. Instead of saying, "Mary and Abraham had a difficult marriage", the author should show examples and let the reader infer that their marriage was troubled. But time and time again, the author makes blanket statements about the problems Mary and Abraham Lincoln had, but doesn't back it up with scenes showing us this. I think it is because the author felt constrained to only show situations that Elizabeth observed first-hand.
Lack of substance:
The book is called Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, yet except for when Elizabeth returns to visit her former masters, we don't have much insight into how Elizabeth lived. I would have enjoyed this book more if there was more of a focus on Elizabeth's personal story. The only thing that we learn about her is how she was taken advantage of when she published a memoir about her time in the White House. This was very depressing.
Biased view of Elizabeth Keckley:
Elizabeth was roundly criticized for violating the Lincoln's privacy. The book excuses this by saying Elizabeth just wanted to help people see how misunderstood Mary Lincoln was. While I'm sure that was part of the reason she wrote it, I can't help but wonder if she also was trying to cash in on her insider's view of that time at the White House. It would have made the character of Elizabeth more human if the complexities of her motives were explored.
Overall, I did not find this book very entertaining, or insightful. Making Mrs. Keckley into a near saint does not do the woman justice. It just makes the book feel inauthentic.
Release Date: January 15th, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Public Library
Format: Hardcover Book
Recommendation: The portions about Mary Lincoln are the reason to read this book. But for any insight on what it was like to be a free African-American during the Civil War, skip this book.