The American Literature anthology our school district used when I was teaching English has some interesting primary source nonfiction pieces. Among them was a letter written by Robert E. Lee explaining his decision to resign his United States military post to return to Virginia, the state of his birth, and join the Southern side of the coming Civil War. When I read trailers to Dorothy Love's new historical fiction book MRS. LEE AND MRS. GRAY and learned that Robert E. Lee's wife Mary Anna, a great granddaughter of Martha Washington, was committed to the eventual freeing of all her father's slaves, I knew the relationship between husband and wife was an interesting one., one that merited further investigation. Immediately I wondered what she felt about her husband's choice to join the Southern effort. That Mrs. Lee was well educated, and with her mother, taught many of their slaves to read and write when it was unlawful also intrigued me. As I started the book, I also learned that she actively supported the movement to help freed blacks' immigration to the newly formed Liberia on the African continent. Certainly not the image I had of a Southern general's wife.
But most intriguing to me was the fifty year plus friendship that developed between the young Mary Anna Curtis, soon to be Mrs. Lee, and one of her slave students, Selina Gray. As Mary becomes a dutiful wife and mother, leaving Virginia behind to accompany Robert to his rough military postings, Selena is chosen to become a household maid of Arlington House, the Curtis estate. Through the years, the two grow closer, as Mary returns for the birth of each of her children and for extended holidays. When the Civil War hits, and Mary and family must abandon Arlington House for safer lodgings, it is Selena who Mary puts in charge of the many George Washington personal belongings that the Curtis family kept.
As I always do when I am reading historical fiction, I look to the author's notes to learn just how much research has gone into the book. What has been imagined, what is documented guides my reading and responses to the work. How may primary sources have been used is of great importance to me. I was impressed with the extensive research and documentation behind Love's novel. Even the few letters written by Selena to Mary that have survived serve as backbone of this well written work, which covers over 50 years of the women's lives. Every time I read a Civil War novel, I think it may be the last one I read, that I have experienced the struggles and strife from all viewpoints. Then another book surfaces that presents yet another viewpoint, and I learn so much more. MRS. LEE AND MRS. GRAY is one of those books, letting the readers inside the personal turmoil and conflicts of both women. I obtained a copy of this book from our library system and heartily recommend it to those who love historical fiction.