Friday, October 6, 2017

"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini

I very much enjoyed reading this novel. It gives a very enlightening look at life in Washington, D.C. from shortly before Abraham Lincoln takes office and continues on for many years after his assassination. The story is told from the perspective of Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress who was born into slavery but who had managed to purchase both her and her son’s freedom.


Elizabeth is a very talented and much sought after dressmaker who is brought to the attention of the newly-elected president’s wife Mary. She is hired to modify an older gown for Mrs. Lincoln to wear at the inaugural ball. Elizabeth understands that this is a test of her abilities before being offered the much sought after position as the First Lady’s Modiste. It is not long after that before a number of government officials return to their homes in the southern states and talk of secession begins.

During all of this time, we are given an inside look at life in the White House from the perspective of Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. She is a hard worker and over the years becomes a good friend and confidant to Mary Lincoln and her family. She is there to see the good times and the tough times. We see Mr. Lincoln begining by trying to hold the United States together, and then through the more difficult times with a number of states voting to secede and form their own government, thus starting the civil war.

As this book is told from the perspective of a black woman, while there is mention of the battles that are fought during the war, we are not overwhelmed with combat tactics or the horrific results of many of those battles. Victories and losses are mentioned, but not described in great detail.

Over the years Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley became more than just employer and employee, they developed a deep friendship and often relied upon each other for emotional support when times grew tough. After Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, Mary and her children leaned a great deal upon Elizabeth. Elizabeth was there for Mary Lincoln during the funeral of her husband, she was there for her to help pack the family’s belongings, and she was there to help them find a place to relocate to in Chicago. Elizabeth also did her best to help Mary adjust to her new circumstances and to help her to find a way to repay the debts she acquired while living as the First Lady and purchasing beyond her means. Even her husband hadn’t been aware of the extent of her debts before he was killed.

The author of this book clearly did a great deal of research on Elizabeth Keckley. When I started the book, I hadn’t realized that it was about a woman who truly existed and had even written her own memoir. This is a work of historical fiction told from Elizabeth’s point of view, but there is still a great deal of truth in the tale. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the time period or who wondered what life was like for a free black woman who had been born a slave as compared to the lives of the other women around her.

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