Book Tour Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Monday, December 9, 2013
Title: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Published: expected January 15 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 3/5

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.

Through the first state secession to the outbreak of the Civil War to the Emancipation Proclamation to Lincoln's reelection and his assassination, seamstress and modiste Elizabeth Keckley was there to see all of it happen firsthand. From a slave to Presidential family confidante, Elizabeth's story is full of unlikely twists and turns; ripe picking for a historical fiction novel. Jennifer Chiaverini takes this remarkable woman's life and turns it into a cohesive, smooth read. She ably turns this little-known American historical figure and presents her as a complicated woman loving in one of America's most complicated times.

Elizabeth's story seems unlikely, but the way Chiaverini presents it is pretty close to historical record. Using her talent and personal drive, Elizabeth buys both her own freedom and her sons and makes her way using only her sewing and fashion skills. As the social level of her clientele elevates and the political arena gets combative, she comes to the notice of newly- arrived First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. With her discretion and warm personality, Elizabeth soon finds herself a trusted friend to the entire Lincoln family, but especially to Mrs. Lincoln. As a freed black woman with her unique position to the President of the United States, Elizabeth uses her position to try and help her fellow man.

Their friendship may be unequal in terms of social status, but these two women cared immensely about the other. Chiavereini repeatedly shows how much Elizabeth valued the friendship and trusted extended to her by the First Family, and how she earned her place as their friend. Some areas of the novel do tend to drag -- like when the book focuses on the fashion and the how-to of Elizabeth's business -- and the third person narration style does tend to distance the reader from both the characters and the action. However, it did facilitate a wide view of the situation in which these women lived.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a solid and smart historical fiction novel. Taking us through all the ups and downs of Elizabeth's life (her friendship with Mary, their eventual and unreconciled disagreement), starting in 1860 and wrapping up in 1907, this is truly a wide-ranging story. Elizabeth Keckley's life was long, her experiences noteworthy, and her story is intriguing. To this day, America tends to revere Abraham Lincoln. So this new look at his life, and especially his wife, will likely find a wide and eager audience.

1 comment:

  1. I love learning about "forgotten" historical figures like this! Glad to see that you enjoyed the book. Thanks for being on the tour.


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