This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.
Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.
This book gives insight into
- The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
- The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
- The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.
The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.