My 2 cents:
Like the steam engine Elizabeth Keckley describes on p. 242, Jennifer Chiaverini's newest novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, starts out slow, chugs along steadily, then gathers steam until it becomes impossible for the reader to get off the train. By the end of the ride, the reader is completely immersed with a real sense of who these extraordinary people - Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln, and President Abraham Lincoln – really were. I could almost hear the late Paul Harvey (famous radio broadcaster … ) intoning, “And now you know … The Rest of the Story.”
Chiaverini's a scholar, without a doubt. In fact, this work of historical fiction could easily be a companion book, alongside U.S. History textbooks, and if I were teaching the Civil War, I'd make sure my students had a copy of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.
But, the best parts are the glimpses inside the White House, inside the lives of Elizabeth, Mary Lincoln, President Lincoln, their families, friends, and in some cases, enemies. As Mrs. Lincoln's personal seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley spent many hours during Lincoln's presidential years in their private rooms. My favorite scenes are those of the President affectionately mussing his sons' hair, or wrestling with them on the sofas and rugs, watching his goats play outdoors in the White House grass, and handing Elizabeth a comb to “brush my bristles down.” (p.160). He calls his wife “Mother,” and she calls him, “Father.” I find that endearing. Not everything between the couple was endearing, though.
We remember Gettysburg for the terrible battle that was fought there, and for the “The Gettysburg Address” President Lincoln delivered there. The day before Lincoln was scheduled to board the train for Pennsylvania to give his speech, his son, Tad, became quite sick, and Mary Lincoln begged her husband not to go. He insisted, saying, “Mother, it is my duty.” They argued bitterly, and the First Lady told the President (with Elizabeth in the room) that he was “a better bureaucrat than a father.” (p.149).
Scenes such as that one portray Mary Todd Lincoln, as history often has, in an unflattering light. It was not uncommon for members of the President's staff to call the First Lady names like “Hellcat” (p.144), and “Her Satanic Majesty,” (p. 159). But, Chiaverini also makes clear how much Elizabeth Keckley loved and admired both the First Lady and President Lincoln. Indeed, after President Lincoln's assassination, Elizabeth was the only staff member who traveled with Mary Lincoln from Washington to Chicago to assist her and console her in her grief.
“As she accompanied Mrs. Lincoln from the White House, Elizabeth was stunned almost breathless by the stark contrast with Mr. Lincoln's final leave-taking … the only music the chirping of the birds, with scarcely anyone to bid her farewell. The silence was almost painful.” (p. 241).
As Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, a former slave who bought her own freedom (and that of her son's) with money earned as a seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley sacrificed much to share her memories of these extraordinary people in those extraordinary times.
“I was her modiste … I dressed Mrs. Lincoln for every levee (reception),” she said. “I made every stitch of clothing that she wore. I dressed her hair. I put on her skirts and dresses. I fixed her bouquets, saw that her gloves were all right, and remained with her each evening until Mr. Lincoln came for her. My hands were the last to touch her, before she took the arm of Mr. Lincoln and went forth to meet the ladies and gentlemen on those great occasions.” (p. 345).
Length: 353 pages
Worth Your Time? A “red, white and blue” yes. Especially, if you enjoyed Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN (the movie, 2012). Elizabeth Keckley was portrayed by Gloria Reuben in the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln by Sally Field, and President Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Bonus: Chiaverini's legions of fans will be delighted to read about the quilt Elizabeth designed and made from scraps of Mrs. Lincoln's dresses.