Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#BookReview: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker - Jennifer Chiaverni

Remember in grade school how shocked you were the first time you saw your teacher outside of school?  You thought she lived at the school, so it was hard to imagine that she had a life away from school.  In Jennifer Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I get the feeling that she finds it difficult to imagine Elizabeth Keckley has a life apart from the White House and so she tethers her to it,  However, we know from her own memoir, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, and other accounts that she was so much more.

Dressmaker does not start off with an enslaved Keckley, it does not go into detail about her years of working and saving to purchase freedom for both herself and her son, George.  In fact, by the time George is really discussed, he's a student at Wilberforce University in Ohio.  Chiaverini's story begins with Lincoln's election day.  Though initially the book focuses on Elizabeth and her dealings as a dressmaker for the women of DC, particularly those of stature, it soon turns into a book about the solemn president and his short-tempered, slightly off kilter wife.

While it is briefly touched upon, not enough mention is made of Keckley's work with the Contraband Relief Association, an organization she founded, and funded through donations from both wealthy whites and middle-class blacks, to provide food, shelter, clothing, etc. to recently freed slaves and wounded soldiers.  In reference to donations from the middle class, They acted out of self-interest, understanding well that many white people saw no difference between the prosperous colored merchant whose wife and daughters dressed in silk and the shoeless whip-scarred contraband who had been a slave only weeks before.  As the lowest among them fared, so everyone of their race would be perceived, and thus for their own sakes it was essential to forgo snobbery and raise up all colored people.  Started by her in DC, it had a long reaching effect and assisted people throughout the entire region.

As far as Elizabeth's friendship with Mary Lincoln, I would be less inclined to call it that, though I understand that Elizabeth, herself, saw it as such.  It seemed extremely one-sided, with Elizabeth called in to assist Mrs. Lincoln when her boys were ill, when she'd overspent her budget, when she worked herself into a tizzy and a sundry of predicaments.  In many ways, she was still treated as a servant, albeit one with the freedom to come and go as she pleased.

With as many books as have been written about Lincoln and his White House, and that's really what this book highlighted, it would have been much more refreshing to focus on anything but in this one.  Given that Keckley only served as Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker for four years, this would have been a great opportunity to focus on her "Thirty Years a Slave" and other aspects of her life that didn't revolve around the Lincoln household.

Published: January 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

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