Monday, April 7, 2014
This is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a strong and inspiring woman who, born a slave, worked hard sewing for ladies on the side and saved enough to free herself and her son and then to send her son Robert to school. It's about her determination to not only survive in the world, but to also prosper in her dressmaking business, hiring others and offering assistance to newly freed slaves who were trying to make their own way in the world for the first time. During the Civil War, she cofounded the Contraband Relief Society, personally contributing as much money as she could spare and also teaching the freed slaves sewing skills they could use for their livelihood. In this novel, we also meet the Lincolns through her eyes, as Elizabeth Keckley became the personal modiste of Mary Todd Lincoln and became acquainted with the president's family intimately during her employ at the White House. She became Mrs. Lincoln's closest friend, the person called upon during traumatic events, when Mrs. Lincoln lost a child to illness and later lost her husband at the hand of an assassin. Elizabeth Keckley was always there to comfort Mrs. Lincoln and offer sound advice and wise counsel, a true friend in times of need, often neglecting her other clients and personal needs. I think it is very sad that Mrs. Lincoln was not as loyal to Elizabeth Keckley, as after one embarrassing mistake in the publishing of some personal correspondence as part of Ms. Keckley's memoir Mrs. Lincoln was never able to forgive her.
I enjoyed this novel and would suggest it to any Civil War enthusiast and anyone who enjoys reading about history from a different perspective than we are typically taught about in school. This is not by any means an unbiased account of the Civil War and the issues surrounding those times, but it is likely the way Ms. Keckley might have viewed them. And the relationship between Ms. Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln was a remarkable one, especially considering the differences in their backgrounds and stations in life. I only wish it could have had a happy ending. We can only hope, as Ms. Keckley did at the end of the novel, that their friendship was renewed in the afterlife.