Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival: A Novel. Jennifer Chiaverini. January 2014. Dutton Adult: Penguin Group (USA). 432 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525459287.
Kate Chase, daughter of Samuel P. Chase, serves as her father’s personal assistant and hostess in the mid-1850’s tumultuous political world. He has one huge ambition, to be the President of the United States, but is dwarfed in his obvious formidable skills by other rivals with far greater rhetorical talent and ability to woo both politicians and voters. Refusing to be daunted by each succeeding disappointment, Kate stands by his side as he pursues his senatorial and then Secretary of the Treasury posts under President Abraham Lincoln. Although the title alludes to an intense rivalry with the President’s wife, the undercurrents of that reality are not the highlights of this fascinating look into the step-by-step progression of abolitionists toward a brutally divisive and destructive Civil War!
More so than in her previous novel about the Lincoln years, Chiaverini does a better job here of plotting the early disasters at Bull Run and other famous historic sites of the war. While Kate’s father is scrambling to expand the country’s debt in order to finance the war, Kate spends her time wheeling and dealing with anyone of influence to support the war and the goal of emancipation for slaves throughout the nation. The clear differences in strategy between her father and Secretary of State Seward often cloud the President’s goals for the future; the President, however, sees the needs of the nation as a higher focus than their petty political squabbles.
Kate is wooed by William Sprague, Governor, military commander, and then Senator of Rhode Island. While her passions are ignited by this fair, successful and commanding presence, there is something about him that makes her hesitate. Kate’s public persona increases with the melancholy aspects of her private life; she is obviously seen as a gracious, politically savvy woman who has made a significant impact on Washington.
This reader was intrigued by a remarkable split between how intelligent this woman could be yet impetuous and naïve in her romantic life. Her devotion to her father’s career obviously supersedes any thoughts about a future as a private citizen and wife. When the role of most women was confined to the home and parties, Kate Chase Sprague clearly serves as a model of an early feminist who could truly also be labeled an astute politician whose skills altered the face of American history.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival is compelling historical fiction that is highly recommended!