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Book review: 'Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker' is a compelling novel

By Shelby Scoffield

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

"MRS. LINCOLN'S DRESSMAKER," by Jennifer Chiaverini, Dutton, $26.95, 353 pages (f)

"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini is a compelling historical novel told from the perspective of Elizabeth Keckley, the first lady's dressmaker and closest confidante.

The novel begins by introducing the reader to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a woman who was born a slave. Because of her talent for sewing beautiful dresses, Elizabeth was eventually able to purchase her freedom.

In 1861, Mrs. Lincoln hears of Elizabeth's skills and hires her to be her personal dressmaker. The two form a fast friendship that carries them both through the pains of the Civil War.

Not only does Chiaverini provide an intimate look into the life of Elizabeth Keckley, she does so for Mary Todd Lincoln as well. She writes of the scrutiny the first lady was put under by the press, of her despair when soldiers were killed, and her frustration with her husband's aloof nature. Chiaverini captures the public and private lives of the Lincolns and portrays the family in a positive light.

The most interesting part of the novel is the scandal that estranged Mrs. Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. It explains the book that Keckley wrote, which supposedly exposed Mrs. Lincoln's faults and troubles to the world. Keckley claimed that publishers printed many untrue things about the Lincolns, which was unbeknownst to her at the time.

"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" does not have any crude language or inappropriate scenes. But because of the maturity of the material, those 16 and older will enjoy the book the most.

Following the Oscar-nominated film "Lincoln," this novel will be appealing to those who enjoyed the movie. Because of the focus on Mrs. Lincoln, women especially will find the story both interesting and entertaining.

Those wanting to learn more about Elizabeth Keckley will want to read her controversial memoir titled "Behind the Scenes in Lincoln's White House: Memoirs of an African American Seamstress," which was printed in 1868. (Keep in mind her assessment of the book.)

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times best-selling author of the Elm Creek series. "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" is her first stand-alone historical novel.

Shelby Scoffield has a bachelor's in English from Brigham Young University and a master's in rhetoric and composition from Stanislaus State University. She is currently working on her teaching credentials so she can teach high school English.

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