Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerNEW this week…

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

2.5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Keckley — a slave who bought her freedom through her skills as a seamstress — is hired on by the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, and serves as her dressmaker and personal confidant through her years in the White House and struggles to maintain their friendship in the years that follow.

Until they left the city limits, every exhalation of steam from the engine seemed to Elizabeth a great sigh of relief — Washington City, glad to see the last of Mrs. Lincoln, who had never been good enough for their great, martyred president and now could be forgotten.

The author of this historical fiction takes on a rather daunting task — not only condensing the events of the president’s family during the Civil War, but also tackling the story of Mrs. Lincoln’s life after her husband’s assassination and the media backlash both she and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley suffered after the publication of Keckley’s memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House… all within 352 pages.

Though I did find the opening 50 pages or so interesting as Elizabeth rises to the position of seamstress to the First Lady, and was greatly intrigued by the last 50 pages, which dealt with the writing of her memoir and the backlash that resulted, the middle section simply wasn’t to my tastes.

The writing style the author used read a lot like a biography or historical account, detailing event after event that happened leading up to, throughout, and after the war.  She’d follow this up with a short description or a few lines of dialogue showing the Lincoln’s actions or reactions, and conclude the topic by stating what Elizabeth thought (though rarely expressed out loud) about the event or issue.  The formula became a bit tedious, and most of Elizabeth’s involvement was limited to what she happened to overhear or a line or two that the Lincolns spoke to her while sewing for Mrs. Lincoln.  Had this been an actual biography or historical nonfiction, I’d probably have liked it more, but as it was, I was so distracted by trying to figure out which parts were fictionalized that I debated putting it down and simply reading Keckley’s own memoir instead.

Overall: Perhaps a good read for those with a great interest in Mrs. Lincoln’s life, but it didn’t live up to my expectations as historical fiction.

More stories about seamstresses:
The Dressmaker Gathering Blue (The Giver, #2) The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe


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