Friday, March 8, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.

Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.

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I have been a fan of Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts books so when I saw she was writing a historic novel I was thrilled to have the chance to read it. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a fascinating look at a different side to a historic figure who has been for the most part marginalized with tales of her mental health issues, interest in spiritualism (the occult)and tales of her grand spending habits.

Mary Todd Lincoln was a woman who had a pretty raw deal all around with her husband becoming President at the out break of the Civil War, the loss of several children, and the assassination of her husband. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a chance to hear about Mrs Lincoln from someone she knew during all of this, Elizabeth Keckley was in a unique position as her dressmaker/employee.

I adore reading about history and Ms Chiaverini writing style is able to bring the whole story vividly to life, allowing you to almost feel as you are there during these events. If you are a history buff at all or even interested in the life of one of our more colorful first ladies you will enjoy this book.

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