In her latest book, the stitching continues, but the story is much bigger in Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker. Chiaverini takes us to Washington in the Civil War era.
I was fascinated to learn that Chiaverini's lead character Elizabeth Keckley is a real historical figure. Keckley was a slave who bought her own freedom with money earned from her considerable dressmaking skills. Those skills took her to Washington where she caught the attention of First Lady Mary Lincoln Todd. The business relationship evolved into more - Keckley became a confidante of Mary and was indeed privy to the inner workings of the Lincoln family. Keckley published her autobiography in 1868 - "Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House." I did go and read bits and pieces of Keckley's book. Much of Chiaverini's research is culled directly from this narrative.
The opening chapters set the tone and atmosphere of the charged months leading up to the Civil War. Although much of it is simply factual, Chiaverini gives us a different view by describing the events through the eyes of historical figures. I must admit that I started peeking ahead a few chapters. I am familiar with this period in history and found the opening chapters a bit slow and more of an overview. I wanted to get to know the characters more intimately.
We do get a more personal view once Elizabeth is ensconced in Mary's inner circle. But that view seems to focus primarily on Mary and Elizabeth's action and reactions to Lincoln's life and crises. Details of Keckley's life are woven in, I just never felt like I connected with this character. I wanted to - her story is fascinating. My strongest reactions were for the Lincoln's - the President is well portrayed and the reader sympathizes with the difficult times and choices he must make, Elizabeth doesn't fare as well - she's unlikeable and difficult.
Chiaverini's previous series also explore history, but are much loved for the warm female relationships, 'folksy' feel and the sense that you too, are sitting around the table with the characters. That sense of being 'in the book' was missing for this reader in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker. I wanted more fiction than fact. Still, it was well written - Chiaverini is a talented wordsmith. Read an excerpt. A reading group guide is also available for book clubs.
January 2014 will see the release of Mrs. Lincoln's Rival - "the First Lady’s very public social and political contest with Kate Chase Sprague." You can keep up with Jennifer on Facebook and on Twitter.
"Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as five collections of quilt patterns inspired by her novels. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. She has taught writing at Penn State and Edgewood College and designs the Elm Creek Quilts fabric lines from Red Rooster Fabrics. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin."
See what others on the TLC book tour thought. Full schedule can be found here.
Jennifer Chiaverini fans will want to add this title to their library (and quilting aficionados - there is a quilt in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker) Thanks to the generosity of Dutton Books, I have a copy to giveaway to one lucky reader. Simply leave a comment to be entered. Ends December 14/13. Open to US and Canada.