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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stitches in Time

This is probably overkill, since many wonderful reviews have been written about the book since its release and posted to an overwhelming number of websites. Not to mention that it hit the number sixth slot on New York Times Bestseller list this past week, and will probably rise to the top by the end of the month, defeating, hopefully, the "grey" porno novels. But I just finished reading it this afternoon and just have to add my two cents about a remarkable book about a remarkable woman written by a remarkable author.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker1 by Jennifer Chiaverini is the author's 21st foray into the world of literary fiction and her first stand-alone historical novel not tied to her Elm Creek Quilt series. Well, yes a famous quilt is described in its pages, but that is not the focus of this remarkable read. Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Hobbs Keckley is; a remarkable woman born into slavery in 1818 who, by virtue of her remarkable sewing skills, rose herself, her son, and the family that owned her out of poverty, purchased her and her son's freedom, and became the famed modiste (dressmaker) to Mary Todd Lincoln, the alleged "insane" wife of Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president (whose birthday, by the way, is next Monday, February 12). Those of you who saw the movie Lincoln(2012) will recall the se(a)mingly minor character played by Gloria Reuben who became Mrs. Lincoln's closest friend and confident during the trials and turmoil of Lincoln's first and, sadly, too short second terms of office (1861-1865). While a minor role in the film, Elizabeth Keckley, in real life, played a major role in Mrs. Lincoln's life during her years as First Lady, as depicted in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which is more a fascinating slightly fictionalized documentary than a true historical novel.

Chiaverini's remarkable effort closely follows Keckley's own memoir, Behind the Scenes - Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House2, written and published a decade after Lincoln's assassination and his wife's fall from public grace, and, thankfully, reprinted and published in 2009. Augmenting her research with other scholarly sources, Chiaverini fills in undisputed facts with imaginative, yet plausible fiction in suggested dialogue, detailed events, and the supposed history of the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt Keckley allegedly made out of scrapes of material she used to make the dresses for her employer. Both books, especially Chiaverini's, are fascinating reads. However, to get the full benefit of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I suggest you read Behind the Scenes first. If nothing else, it provides a first-hand, historical account of the primary character in the novel, as well as fully fleshing out the literary experience.

What is also remarkable about Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is the precise overview of the events leading up to, encompassing, and following our own bloody Civil War. Despite years of frustrating study, I could never fully understand the military logistics so mired in dull textbook detail nor grasp a clear overview of the full extent of the battles and political issues. Never until now when I read Chiaverini's almost simplistic explanations and descriptions of the major battles and strategies, which so enlightened and clarified them in this reviewer's muddled mind that I am tempted to read all those unread Civil War histories and historical novels that have been collecting dust all these years on the shelves of my basement office/library. I understand Chiaverini was at one time a literature professor; she should have added history to her syllabus. I would have gladly enrolled in her course! Not only that, she has the uncanny ability to animate and fictionalize historical figures in such a way that the reader comes to know them as real-life, believable people, not just dull, dusty names in a high school text. 

Keckley is not, however, the only major character in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. We must consider Mrs. Lincoln, another remarkable woman, like Keckley, who, struggling against all odds and suffering more than her share of family deaths, tried to retain her dignity in the midst of public vilification and misunderstanding. Through Keckley via Chiaverini's remarkably tasteful and respectful prose Mary Todd Lincoln is revealed to be not the mad, depressed wife and widow of President Lincoln—the image that has been mistakenly passed down through the years—but a misunderstood, misguided grief-stricken woman whose life was stained by the unfair hand of fate that dealt her blows by disease, assassins and misunderstanding and misguiding contemporaries—supposed friends, family, journalists, and government officials alike. It was Elizabeth Keckley who literally—and literarily—stood by Mary Todd Lincoln's side, often forsaking her own dreams and plans, to try and ensure that of Mrs. Lincoln. In this sense, this historical novel is more a biography of two women facing life together than a fictionalized account of the life of one.

To blog more about Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker would lead to "spoilers" and "give-a-ways" that would certainly ruin your read. I will say, though, that this is, again, a remarkably well-written book whose publication was perfectly timed to coincide with Lincoln as a Oscar's Best Film nominee, Abe Lincoln's upcoming birthday anniversary, and  Black History Month. What better reasons are there for you to acquire copies of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Behind the Scenes and settle in for what I whole heartedly consider perhaps the best reading so far of this year?
1 © 2013 by Jennifer Chiaverini. 353 pp. Hardback. First Edition published January 2013 by Dutton/Penguin Group, New York, NY.
2 © 1868 by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. 132 pp. Paperback.  Reprinted and published in August 2009 by Flying Chipmunk Publishing.

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,