Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Jennifer Chiaverini. Penguin Group (USA). January 2013. 352 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525953616.

Elizabeth Keckley is no stranger to suffering.  Born into slavery, forced to submit to her white master and giving birth to her son George, bearing years of the indignities of slavery and finally painstakingly saving enough to buy her own freedom, she has gradually developed into a skillful dressmaker.  Initially, she develops a reputation by sewing the dresses of Mrs. Davis, whose husband will later leave Washington, D.C. to become the Confederate President during the Civil War.  Her obvious skill earns her enough clientele of the well-to-do that she immediately comes to the attention of Mrs. Lincoln, an enigmatic personality who nonetheless comes to cherish Elizabeth as a dear friend!

This then is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential years observed by Ms. Keckley who spends most of her time at first sewing and dressing the extravagant Mrs. Lincoln and then soothing and encouraging her during her nervous and anxious moments.  Elizabeth’s goodness and kindness in this story is credible but also highlights a bit of naivety as Elizabeth fails to see that Mrs. Lincoln’s caustic tongue has repeatedly offended so many political families so that attention of her peers and the press are constantly focused on reporting innuendos and rumors of scandal.  Elizabeth, however, fails to understand how others can be so cruel to this woman who lost a son years ago, loses another child during the Presidential years, and would be a lonely soul with Elizabeth’s constant encouragement and comfort.  The President, meanwhile, is portrayed as terribly burdened by the disappointing progress for the Union in the interminable defeats of the War, which are carefully and minutely described in detail herein and well worth the read.  However, there are wonderful pages describing Elizabeth’s more than noble efforts to help former slaves adapt to their new freedom after the President gradually frees them, first in certain states, and then later after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The President and his wife, it seems, had premonitions of his death in the year before his assassination, and poignant are the scenes following his untimely death.  Mrs. Lincoln up to that point has been shopping for herself and the White House to the point where her debt is absolutely outrageous whether one considers the value of our current money or the value of money in the 1860s.  Elizabeth spends the rest of her life trying to help save Mrs. Lincoln from the embarrassment that would be sure to fall if the public were to learn about her impecunious situation.  Not to provide a spoiler, suffice to say that all fails, and the closing chapters surround Elizabeth’s coming to terms with the reality of what she can realistically do and the harm she has inadvertently done in her well-intentioned efforts.

Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker is well-researched and crafted carefully, never failing to intrigue, fascinate and inform the reader about these tumultuous years when history forced dramatic changes on the nation and on individuals living during those precarious years!  Characters are depicted with all of their strengths and weaknesses, adding to the emotional ups and downs that touch the reader on every page. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is superb historical fiction that should become a best seller very, very soon!  Congratulations, Jennifer Chiaverini!

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