Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule: A Novel.  Jennifer Chiaverini. Dutton. March 2015. 400 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525954295.

Julia Grant and her slave Jule vowed to let nothing separate them.  Both were blinded with their fondness for each other and staunchly declared their parents’ and peers’ warnings to be incorrect.   Time, however, changes so many things.  Julie falls in love with Ulysses S. Grant and is astonished at his family’s vociferous condemnation of slavery.  She naively believes that will change in time.  She never examines the condition of slaves, thinking that Julie has a good home, doesn’t work that hard and has a bond with Julia that other slaves lack. 

As the Civil War looms closer and closer, Ulysses is rising in the United States Army and travels constantly. Many of his strategies are described geographically and the reader grasps the tension accompanying each movement, win or loss. However, Julia is always allowed to accompany him, living in homes close to where he is stationed.  Jule begins to remain back at the Julia’s parents’, home and she falls in love with a slave who is an ardent freedom lover, determined to escape from his cruel bondage.  It is he who opens Jule’s eyes to the opportunities that escape would often.  A strangeness grows between Julia and Jule, but Julia fails to grasp the root of the change. 

Julia’s story evolves as her husband gains more glory and honor during the War and she meets famous Washington politicians and their spouses, including the temperamental Mrs. Lincoln whose fiery rampages confuse and frighten Julia.  The love between Ulysses and Julia is depicted as very special and very deep, nothing being allowed to separate them, including the jealous slandering that occurs with every successful battle.  When he is accused of being brutal in war, he simply states that war demands certain actions to not only guarantee success but to assert the principles that were a consequence of the South attempting to divide the United States.  History indeed tells the story from the point of view of the victor.

Due to Julia’s eye problems, Jule had been the eyes and ears of Mrs. Grant for years.  The problems with the lack of vision parallel her blindness to the approaching end of slavery, including Jule’s eventual escape and success as an accomplished hairdresser. Jule’s husband’s future is shocking but definitely real and no tribute to slave owners.  The reader awaits some kind of compromise and reunion between Julia and Jule, but reality instead deems that “happily ever after” scenario to be symbolic of the deep divisions that rule during and after the War.

Jennifer Chiaverini has once again crafted a novel that brooks no denial of the sufferings of the war, the harshness of slavery, the dreams and aspirations of slaves, the sacrifices demanded of the Grants.  Those who live in the path of the war suffer as well and at times the mercy of the Grants is seen in their response to the requests of widows and families of the “enemy.”  Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is fine historical fiction that is sincere, intriguing, adventurous and passionate on every page. Well-written and researched, this reviewer highly recommends this novel for those who love accurate and suspenseful historical fiction!

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