Monday, December 30, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Book Review

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini.

This was an easy book to pick up. I was browsing the large print aisle at the library.

Yes, I do this. No, I'm not a senior citizen. Yet. No, I don't have particularly bad eyesight. Yet. No, I don't need reading glasses. Yet.

I browse the large print aisle because I like large print for reading on my treadmill. I can read normal-sized print when I walk on the treadmill, but not so well when I jog. Too much bouncing to follow a line of print comfortably. This is where large print really comes in handy.
Yeah, yeah, I've tried audio books when on the treadmill, but I can only tolerate staring at a blank wall for so long. Even while listening. I need something for my eyes. 

Large print does the trick. And the librarians stopped smirking at me in the large print aisle years ago, once they learned how many books I read and how many miles I cover in a year. And all this is recreational. None of it counts as part of my full-time job. The walking/jogging or the reading.

Oh, speaking of reading...

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Chiaverini writes some historical fiction, but she is most noted for her novels revolving around quilts. Or so I have discovered.

The title of this book had me interested immediately. Historical fiction has been a focus of mine lately and the Lincoln time frame fits the Civil War focus of the area where I live. And I was curious how a dressmaker fit into the story.

This is well-written narrative about Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. After purchasing her and her son's freedom, she moved to Washington, D.C. to create an independent business of dress making for the city's elite society ladies. Through these well-placed patrons, she became acquainted with Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, ultimately becoming her closest confidante.

The history presented here is certainly enough to learn a few things, but not so much to distract from the Keckley-Lincoln friendship. This is where the focus is, as it should be, but we also get to learn about Mrs. Lincoln and her personal quirks. This is quite well done, and fills in my own history knowledge learned from the textbooks.

Why didn't all those school textbooks discuss some of those personal quirks of our historical figures? I would probably have been a lot more interested in my history courses if they had. Too bad.

Maybe that's why I am enjoying reading historical fiction novels now. And I'm learning a lot of history along the way.

Can you tell that history was not my major in college?

I have never been particularly fond of learning about the Civil War, simply because it was just plain horrific. No matter how it is presented, it was horrific.

I don't like war.

I did like visiting Gettyburg, but it left me truly bothered and I still don't like war. And I don't like reading about war.

But this book gives the reader just enough of the war highlights to place it in history and to set the stage for the protagonist. What mattered, what was relevant, what was happening. Just enough. No more. No gore.

Thank you very much.

A slice of war history I can handle.

Mostly this is a story of two women, their own struggles in very different social positions, their challenges in very different lives, and a very genuine friendship between them through both good times and tough times.

This really is historical fiction, full of verifiable facts of both women, documented in numerous, different ways. One tends to wonder how much of a historical fiction novel is true, but in this case, Chiaverini has done a fine job with her research. She is spot on.

Mrs. Lincoln was a unique public personality and she received more than her fair share of notoriety because of it. But this story is more about her dressmaker and confidante, Mrs. Keckley. Mrs. Keckley was quite a woman herself, not only enduring slavery, buying her freedom, becoming both an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, but her connections to high society put her in a unique place in history.

Well done, Mrs. Keckley.

This is a story worth telling. This is a story worth reading.

This is a story well written.

Well done, Ms. Chiaverini.

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