Reviews for Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Booklist Reviews 2012 December #2
Chiaverini's latest is based on the true story of Elizabeth Keckley, who bought freedom from slavery for herself and her son and went on to become a well-known modiste in Washington. Keckley had a front-row seat to history: she dressed Washington's A-list, including Jefferson Davis' wife before they left D.C., and, most intimately, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln is mercurial, scheming, extravagant, and troubled, but Elizabeth stands by her as she is lambasted in the press. Long stretches of battle history and descriptions of Lincoln's political rivals lag, while more time spent on Elizabeth's work with newly freed slaves in D.C. would have been welcome. Still, Elizabeth Keckley is an admirable heroine--successful, self-made, and utterly sympathetic. Readers of the Elm Creek Quilt series who have enjoyed Chiaverini's narrative jaunts into Civil War and Underground Railroad history will be interested in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker--and there is even a little bit of quilting in the story. This is also a good choice for readers of Christian historical fiction, as both Elizabeth's and Mr. Lincoln's faiths are important elements in shaping their characters. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 January
Behind the book: A former slave's surprising story

More than a decade ago, I was researching ante­bellum and Civil War-era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece.

Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously pieced hexagons and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted needleworker, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age.

The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested—a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady.

A few years later, while researching my Civil War novel, The Union Quilters, I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work—Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckley’s 1868 memoir. I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of her harrowing years as a slave, her struggle for freedom and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington’s elite, including the new president’s wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family’s chambers within the White House, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and tragic events in the nation’s history.

For years afterward, I longed to delve more deeply into Keckley’s story, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington. How, I wondered, had Keckley spent that tense and fateful day in 1860 when the increasingly divided nation awaited the results of the election that would send Abraham Lincoln to the White House? What emotions had swept through her when invasion by the Confederate Army seemed imminent? What sights, sounds and smells had she encountered while all around her the capital became an armed camp?

And the most provocative question of all: How had the publication of her memoir transformed Keckley’s life?

As she awaited the publication of Behind the Scenes, Keckley worried that she might be criticized for revealing too much about the private lives of President Lincoln and the First Lady. Her fears proved all too prescient, making the last chapters of her remarkable life as compelling as any that had come before.

Elizabeth Keckley’s relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln is the focus of Jennifer Chiaverini’s new novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a compelling fictional account of Keckley’s life.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 November #2
From the intimate domestic circles of the political elite, a dressmaker witnesses the upheavals of 19th-century America. Chiaverini (The Giving Quilt, 2012, etc.) sets aside her Elm Creek Quilts series for this historical novel about Elizabeth Keckley. Drawing upon the rich milieu of Civil War America, as well as Keckley's own memoir (published in 1868 as Behind the Scenes), Chiaverini weaves the story of a woman who lived as both slave and freedwoman. Elizabeth learns her trade by making clothes for her fellow slaves, and once freed, she plies her needle so skillfully that the wives of Republicans and Democrats clamor for her designs. Varina, the second wife of Jefferson Davis, even seeks to take Elizabeth with her to Montgomery when the South secedes and her husband becomes president of the Confederacy. Despite her desire to journey with Varina, Elizabeth decides to stay in Washington, since traveling further South will erase most of her freedoms. Her decision leads to her new position as Mary Todd Lincoln's modiste. Elizabeth not only designs and sews Mary's clothes, but she also arranges her hair, helps her dress, cares for her children at times and becomes her confidante. As others nearly shun Mary for her extravagances during wartime, not to mention her mercurial personality, she relies more and more heavily upon Elizabeth. Their relationship affords an interesting perspective for viewing the cultural and social turmoil of the times, for no matter how much Elizabeth is respected for her skills and no matter how intimately Mary trusts her with her confidences, Elizabeth remains a former slave, and she must be reminded of her place. While the backdrop is strikingly vivid, Chiaverini's domestic tale dawdles too often in the details of dress fittings and quilt piecings, leaving Elizabeth's emotional terrain glimpsed but not traveled. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 September #2
In Washington, DC, freedwoman Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley becomes the personal modiste (and confidante) of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Chiaverini departs from her popular "Elm Creek Quilt" series to tell the story. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Express Reviews
Elizabeth Keckley, born a slave who later purchased her freedom, lived a life that was charmed in many ways. Her talents as a seamstress gained her entre into the dressing rooms of the wives of the political elite in Washington. By far her most famous and long-lasting association was with Mary Todd Lincoln, wife then widow of the 16th President. Chiaverini steps away from her popular "Elms Creek Quilt" series to explore this relationship in this absorbing stand-alone historical novel. Verdict Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one, while Chiaverini's devoted readers may be adventurous enough to try something new. [See Prepub Alert, 8/16/12.]--Pam O'Sullivan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib.(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 November #4

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.)

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