I first learned about Elizabeth Keckley when I taught American Literature to high school students.
An excerpt from her memoir Behind the Scenes was in our textbook, an anthology which spanned late 17th Century through late 20th Century American writers. I was engrossed by Keckley's description of Washington D.C.'s chaos in the hours immediately after Lincoln's assassination and was especially intrigued that a Negro dressmaker was such an intimate friend of Mary Todd Lincoln that she was the one Mary sought out in her grief. When I heard that Jennfier Chiaverini, who has built a career around her fictional quilting stories (some of which have historical settings), was writing a novel about this Keckley-Lincoln friendship, I was thrilled. Knowing that there are many others on the waiting list for this book at our local library, I put this book at the top of my reading pile when I got it last week.
First, let me say that I have read many books by Jennifer Chiaverini that I have loved. I have read a couple that I felt dragged some. That may be why I have not read every one of her books.
I knew from the start that is a stand-alone book and would not connect to any of her other quilt-based books. But from the start, I was disappointed. The book is fact-laden and I appreciated that, yet I was always wondering why Chiaverini did not chose to write a nonfiction book. It was clear that she really had not ventured into much fictionalizing of the story. It appeared that the only venture into fiction was the story of the quilt made from dress scraps. Actually there is a quilt that may trace back to Elizabeth's hands, so even that story thread was based on some fact. Having read the aforementioned excerpt from Keckley's memoir years ago, its wording and excitement kept coming to mind, and I found Chiaverini's narrative slightly lacking in comparison. When I finished the book, I decided to check Amazon to read other people's reviews. Opinions are divided, but I found several others who felt as I did. Some of them located copies of Keckley's memoir and felt Chiaverini's narrative was almost a blueprint copy of the original.
Whether you read Chiaverini's book, Keckley's memoir, or one of the several other books written about the Mary Todd Lincoln-Elizabeth Keckley friendship, it will be worth your time. You will learn much about President Lincoln, his family life, and his kind treatment of people such as Mrs. Keckley. You will perhaps have a better understanding of Mary Lincoln, whose life was darkened by tragedy, but whose behavior added to the public's severe criticism of her. And you'll find a remarkable story of a strong black woman whose superb sewing skills allowed her to buy not only her freedom, but also her son's. That same skill gave her the means to send her son to college, educate herself, and it placed her in history-making families such as the Jefferson Davis family and the First Family of the US. You will also see the silent and not so silent prejudices that continued to shape her life, eventually adding to the events that forever divided Lincoln and Keckley. Her story is another of those "small stories" that add such richness to the quilt of our country's history.
Now that I am done with the review, I want to go back to my earlier comments about first learning about Keckley in an American Literature anthology. Those who've spent time in the education field know that trends come and go in that field, just as they do in fashion and other areas of cultural life. Right now textbooks are considered so past history. Technology continues to be the buzz word. In language arts instruction, many teachers have abandoned using anthologies, whether in print or e-format. Instead of being exposed to many pieces of literature, usually excerpts chosen for particular purpose, students now read only a few longer pieces in each course. It is a matter of depth vs. breadth. I understand the need to teach students the skills that come with deeper reading of a complete novel, play, or memoir, but I think that when students spend weeks and weeks, even whole quarters of study on one piece of literature, the lessons can become contrived and interest plummets. It becomes a matter of taking an excellent piece of literature and turning into the proverbial "dead horse." Also, I don't like a frequent abandonment of teaching the breadth of American literature, the historical wide view that gives our young people an understanding of the writers who witnessed, recorded, and even caused what has come to be our history. It is those anthologies that opened me to such authors as Elizabeth Keckley, Amy Tan, Christy Brown (author of My Left Foot). So, fellow readers, excuse my educational rant. I will now return to my review of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.