Wednesday, January 3, 2018

MRS. LINCOLN'S DRESSMAKER by Jennifer Chiaverini

Elizabeth Keckley is a former slave who worked hard to buy freedom for herself and her son.  Now she’s an accomplished seamstress in the nation’s capital as the country teeters toward civil war.  Her beautiful work brings her to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, and soon she is dressing the First Lady and occasionally trying to tame the President’s unruly hair.  As frivolous as this premise may sound, the story is really quite serious, as Elizabeth becomes Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante and helps soothe her grief when the Lincolns lose their beloved son Willie.  Elizabeth’s friendship becomes even more important after the President’s assassination, as Mrs. Lincoln is devastated and almost destitute.  Elizabeth goes too far in her efforts to assist Mrs. Lincoln, at the expense of her own welfare.  Elizabeth generally gives Mrs. Lincoln excellent advice, which Mrs. Lincoln often fails to follow, but Elizabeth makes some monumentally poor decisions for her own life, one of which costs her almost everything but makes this book possible.  Elizabeth’s story is one worth telling, deserving of better treatment, but this novel reads like very dry non-fiction.  The history covered here is mostly familiar, and the author doesn’t bring any suspense to Elizabeth’s story, either, which is relatively unknown.  Plus, the prose is pretty basic and uninspired.  Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a better read, although longer and denser.  And, yes, Elizabeth Keckley appears in that novel as well.

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