Author: Jennifer Chiaverini

Publisher: Penguin Group

ISBN: 978-0-14-218035-8 (paperback 2013)

I began reading Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilts novels with her first publication in 1999. The quilt-related series is built around a cast of charming fictional characters. Interspersed with publication of her quilting series books, Chiaverini wrote historically based novels that drew on the quilters and their imagined ancestry. With Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, she has made a complete break with the Elm Creek characters, delving into history with characters drawn just as convincingly as in her previous stories.

The real-life seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, published an account of her association with the Lincolns. It’s from this rich first-person account that Chiaverini sculpts the figure of Keckley. She is shown to be a resourceful, honorable woman who fought against prejudices of the day, buying her freedom from slavery and establishing herself in a successful career as a dressmaker. From her humble beginnings, she manages to find herself the personal modiste of the First Lady and other Washington notables.

Chiaverini has done a remarkable job of blending historic fact with believable dialogue. She’s used references such as biographies of Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis to create a lively account of what might have transpired within earshot of a woman who became a trusted companion within the households. From the written reports of Mary Lincoln’s singular personality, she’s painted the First Lady as a headstrong woman who loved her husband dearly and suffered greatly when she lost not only him, but three of her four sons.

The author does not disappoint those readers who are drawn to her usual theme of needle and thread. She describes many features of the beautiful gowns that Keckley produced. And especially dear to the quilters will be the mention of a quilt created by Keckley for Mrs. Lincoln. A quilt with questionable provenance that may or may not be this gem is now housed at Kent State University; hence the author’s reluctance to state with certainty that such a quilt was stitched. It is a provocative supposition, especially for quilters who enjoy hearing the tales behind antique quilts.

Chiaverini also ventures into the political aspects of the day with some of the probable emotions underlying life during the Civil War. She’s used historic references to show how the war affected individuals and life in general during such trying times. Such a context for this story makes it the kind of book that will engage a broad range of readers.

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