Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker is Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and now the most sought-after dressmaker in Washington, D.C. She has made dresses for patrons as diverse as Mrs. Jefferson Davis and, of course, the First Lady, Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln. This latter patron allowed her access to the White House to do much of her sewing of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses there. Through that time spent together, they became close friends – so much so, that on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination, there was no one Mrs. Lincoln wanted more than Elizabeth.
While I found the insights into the Lincoln family interesting, it took me a really long time to get into this book. In fact, if I hadn’t borrowed it from a friend, there’s a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t have finished it at all (which is extremely rare for me!). The first half of the book (the half covering the Civil War) felt rushed, each event given a paragraph or two. And the events were often no more than listings of historical facts. Perhaps the third-person narration was part of the problem. It seemed that if Elizabeth would have been a first-person narrator, the reader would have been drawn into her emotions and reactions more. As it was, she was a passive observer for much of the book. I have to be fair, though, and say that the second half of the book drew me in more.
In the spectrum of historical fiction, I found this book to lie at the opposite end from Clara and Mr. Tiffany (linked to my review). I was kept more at a distance from the events, rather than feeling like I experienced them myself.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker does not always paint a positive picture of Mrs. Lincoln, although the admiration and respect for President Lincoln is clear. In this, the book echoes Elizabeth’s own perception of the Lincoln family, sometimes ironically so. Anyone interested in the Civil War, emancipation, or the Lincoln family would probably greatly enjoy this book. I did learn a lot from reading it, as you should from historical fiction.. I just wish it occasionally felt less like a history lesson and more like being there myself.