Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jennifer Chiaverini Hits the Road with Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Jennifer Chiaverini kicked off her book tour for her new historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, here in Madison this week.  Jennifer is best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series of books. If you are a quilter you probably already know of her.

While she was researching The Lost Quilter, Jennifer came across a post-Civil War era patriotic "crazy" quilt that was attributed to Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and eventual dressmaker for and close confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln.  

Then when she was researching The Union Quilters, she came across a memoir written by Mrs. Keckley.  Thus was born the idea for this particular historical novel, which is based on the relationship between Mrs. Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln.

If the crowd at Barnes and Noble is any indication, Jennifer's usual following, made up largely though not exclusively of quilters who love to read, or readers who love to quilt -- has just swelled to include Lincolnphiles, history buffs, and anyone who recently saw Sally Fields and Gloria Reuben in the new Stephen Spielberg movie, Lincoln.  Oh, yeah, and Daniel Day Lewis was in it, too.

Elizabeth Keckley is an intriguing figure in American history on several levels. First off, she was born a slave. After becoming a seamstress, she bought her and her son's freedom while living and working in St. Louis. Several years later she moved to Washington D.C. where she was introduced to the wife of the newly inaugurated President.  She quickly took on the role of Mrs. Lincoln's dress designer and maker as well as personal dresser.  That put her in the unique position of becoming a friend and confidant to one of the most intriguing First Ladies in our nation's history. She was witness to all sides of Mary Todd Lincoln's complex moods and personality.
Mary Todd Lincoln

Mrs. Keckley was also a political activist, working to raise funds for an organization that  provided basic necessities as well as emotional support to recently freed slaves and sick and wounded soldiers

She was a mother who made sure her son was well education, but suffered his death as a soldier in the Union Army. And she was a writer whose published autobiography, Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House, revealed much about the private life of the enigmatic Mrs. Lincoln and  provided much of the grist for Chiaverini's novel.

Jennifer Chiaverini
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker just jumped to the top of my "must read" list of books, perhaps along with Jennifer Fleischner's non-fiction account, Mrs.Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley.

Jennifer Chiaverini has just begun her nine city book tour. But with an early book release, coinciding (not accidently) with the Lincoln movie hitting theaters and with awards season, you can bet that book tour will expand quickly.  Watch for Jennifer to come to your city.  She's passionate about her book, and just as entertaining in person as she is on the page.