Book Review
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Mrs. Lincon's Dressmaker and a Soldier's Heart

"Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini (Dutton, $26.95)

Never to be defeated by a numbing choice of title and an author's underwhelming series of previous titles on quilting, we moved ahead anyway with a read of this first stand-alone historic novel written by Jennifer Chiaverini. It turns out that this New York Times Bestselling author is a very good writer indeed.

There has been a renewed and long overdue interest in Abraham Lincoln of late. The 16th President of the United States is certainly among the greatest presidents in our history and the recent book on Lincoln's assassination by Bill O'Reilly and Steven Spielberg's movie on the great emancipator (nominated in 12 Oscar categories) have certainly helped.

In all honesty, however, the title "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" does not motivate one to pick up Jennifer Chiaverini's bookwith great enthusiasm nor do justice to its contents. Yet we will be the first to admit this is an extremely well-written, highly interesting and historically significant book.

The dressmaker in question was Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave born in 1818 who bought her own freedom and that of her son. She became a very successful seamstress, civic activist and author in Washington, D.C. Along her road to freedom and personal success she became the personal modiste, confidante and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. This position put Keckley in the midst of the life of the first family throughout Lincoln's presidency and provides extensive insight not only into Mary but also the character and integrity of Abraham and the personal challenges he faced as president of a war-torn nation.

After the end of the American Civil War and the death of Lincoln, killed on April 15, 1865, during his second term, Elizabeth Keckley wrote her own autobiography published in 1868, "Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House." Chiaverini's historical novel draws information from that book and fills in the blanks to comprehensively cover her extraordinary relationship with the First Lady through the White House and the years of sadness and struggle that followed, including financial stress and the deaths of the Lincolns' sons, Will and Tad.

Chiaverini's impeccably researched and thoroughly engrossing story of intertwining lives contributes greatly to the historical significance of this period in our history. We will be the first to admit that one cannot judge a book by its title.

-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith

The Reckoning" by Bob Larrañaga (CreateSpace, $14.99)

Bob Larrañaga, who happens to be the brother of the Miami Hurricane's basketball coach, Jim Larrañaga, has deep southern roots. His great-great-grandfather was one of Florida's earliest lighthouse keepers and his great-grandfather fought in the Civil War before settling in Key West and becoming one of the island's largest landowners. Bob's new Civil War novel, "The Reckoning," his eighth book, is set along Florida's "graveyard of the sea."

It has a timely theme. Post traumatic stress disorder-- what was then called "soldier's heart" -- seems to have been the second most common diagnosis of the 1860s. The story is told by Ed Canfield, a decorated veteran haunted by what he did in the line of duty in the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War erupts, Ed refuses to enlist. His son, Jesse, calls him "chickenhearted" and their war of words soon turns to blows. His girlfriend stops seeing him and the Home Guard tries to kill him. But Ed stands his ground.

Then the USS Hatteras attacks Cedar Key and Ed must take up arms. He and Jesse dodge the Yankee shelling and sail for Key West where deadly shoals lie in wait. With a Union gunship in pursuit, they race toward a refugee camp where they hope to find Ed's girlfriend. Just as they enter the steaming Everglades, the deadliest foe of all strikes.

From this well-researched book I learned that the first shots of the Civil War were fired in Pensacola, not in Charleston; that many blockade-runners were actually British naval officers sailing fast, newly built ships on behalf of profiteers; and that Florida became the food locker of the South during the war.

-- Recommended

by Mark Howell