“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini is one of my favorite authors.  I have read all of her book in the Elm Creek Quilts series and enjoyed them.  When I saw this new book on the library shelf, I just had to read it.  Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a wonderful fictional account of a true-to-life person who actually was Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste during her tenure in the White House.

It is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave from Missouri.  She bought her freedom and that of her son by fashioning dresses and gowns for the elite of St. Louis and then after coming east, for the elite of pre-Civil War Washington, D.C.  The book is a snapshot of life in the Civil War period in the northern capital.  Interestingly, Elizabeth was the dressmaker for Mrs. Jefferson Davis and various other wives of the southern states before war broke out.

Despite personal tragedies, such as the death of her only son during Civil War conflict, she remained a close confidant and seamstress for the mercurial Mary Lincoln, who was by no means the darling of the people as was her husband, Abraham.  Mary Todd Lincoln was a person who could be engaging and also quite irritating.  Elizabeth served her during these troubling times and was her companion in her mourning of her sons and later her beloved husband.  Mary did not endear herself to the people of Washington, D.C. and Elizabeth was always there to help her through her personal tragedies.

Elizabeth also was instrumental in raising money and supplies for the freedmen who flocked into Washington after the Emancipation Proclamation seeking work and refuge after being freed from slavery.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in order to provide for those poor souls encamped around the capital.  “Contraband” in this sense was a term used for the slaves and freedmen.  She worked tirelessly for their comfort and struggles to be free.  She wrote her memoirs entitled, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.  She sought with this memoir of her life to give the people her perception of Mary Todd Lincoln and to refute some of the misconceptions surrounding Mrs. Lincoln’s life with the President.  However, her book was not well received by the public or the newspapers at that time.  She placed herself in the midst of a scandal by having the book printed and in the course of writing it, lost the good will of Mrs. Lincoln.

While this book is obviously a fictional work, the author thoroughly researched Mrs. Keckley and her association with the Lincolns and made the story very believable.  Certain conversations among the characters could or could not have occurred, but actually appeared to have taken place.

I applaud the author, Ms. Chiaverini, for writing a wonderful novel and am looking forward to reading her next historical fiction, The Spymistress.

 

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