Week 9 Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

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Last week, a neighbor pressed into my hands this book which she had checked out at the library. We use different library systems, and mine doesn’t have it. So, this became my Week 9 read.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a historical novel about Elizabeth Keckley who was born a slave, bought her freedom with her dressmaking work, moved to Washington, D.C. and built up a clientele among the “finest ladies” in society. This brought her to the attention of Mary Lincoln when Abraham was elected President and the Lincolns moved into the White House.

Much of the source material for this novel is the memoir that Keckley wrote after her time in the White House and the days of her continued association with Mary Lincoln following the assassination of the President. It was the publication of that memoir that caused an irreparable break between the two.

Chiaverini is definitely in Keckley’s corner as it regards this complicated relationship. Keckley apparently went above and beyond to protect and serve Mary Lincoln, and Mary generally was a person who took up all the air in a room when she entered it. She expected Keckley to drop everything (Who cares about your business? I need you.) when she summoned her to come to NYC, to Chicago, etc.

I thought that Keckley was going to be presented as a person without a single fault, but there was a little more nuance toward the end of the book. It would be difficult not to fall in love with your subject with a story like this one. Remarkable accomplishment in this long life. And to think that Keckley died at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children (age of eighty-nine.)

The writing in this book is the writing I often expect to see in a book that has this written across its cover: “New York Times Bestselling Author.”  Not in any way surprising, but not without its merits. It did make me think of the great sweep of this disaster of American inequality, something I think about every day.

5 comments on “Week 9 Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini”

  1. Teri- your reading list is so sweeping and interesting ~ I have enjoyed following along your vibrant path over this summer of reading! And this book sounds so interesting. I love learning the perspectives of people close to such historic figures, and discovering the behind the scenes person that may match or conflict with the person that we all *think* we know…

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    1. My reading list has been *ahem* mostly unplanned. Thanks for going along for the ride. It’s good to have company, isn’t it? (I probably need to engage the services of your son to pick some books for me. No matter that he doesn’t know me; I think he has ESP.)

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  2. Thank you for the review. I definitely want to read the memoire by Keckley. She must have been an amazing women. I am led down so many interesting paths by all who write such great posts.

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    1. I finished Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir. I’m so glad you mentioned it in your review. Keckley’s story was a thought provoking look at the time period in which she lived as she experienced it. I highly recommend Keckley’s “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.” I remember reading “The Help” followed by “Maid Narratives” (research for “The Help”). It was interesting to see how Kathryn Stockett used her research to help her create “The Help.” I look forward to seeing what Chiaverini does with Keckley’s memoir.

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      1. How kind of you to circle back here to let me know you recommend the memoir. I will also let my neighbor, who brought my attention to Chiaverini’s book, know about this. And thanks for that tip about “Maid Narratives.”

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