Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Jennifer Chiaverini. Penguin, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-525-95361-6
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Keckley, a freed slave in Washington, D.C., right before the start of the Civil War, gains fame as a dressmaker for Northerners and Southerners alike, but when Lincoln is elected and the Southerners secede, she chooses to remain in Washington. She becomes the modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln and is privy to the innermost workings of the Lincoln White House, Mary Todd’s reckless spending, President Lincoln’s death, and his widow’s subsequent penury. When Lizzy writes a memoir about her experiences, she’s denigrated by the public (which derides it as “Kitchen and Bed-Chamber Literature”) for betraying the Lincoln confidences even though she casts Mary Todd in a favorable light. Chiaverini’s characterization of the relationship between Mary Todd and Lizzy, a real historical figure, is nuanced, revealing a friendship that is at times unstable and fraught with class distinctions but also warm and protective. Though not without its problems (characters are insulated from the worst of the war; Lizzy is curiously passive; the pacing can be slow), Chiaverini deviates from her usual focus on quilting (found in the Elm Creek Quilts series) to create a welcome historical. Agent: Maria Massie, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/26/2012
Release date: 01/15/2013
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