I have quite a fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln (I even have a shelf dedicated to her) and by default, have read about Elizabeth Keckley. One can imI have quite a fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln (I even have a shelf dedicated to her) and by default, have read about Elizabeth Keckley. One can imagine my excitement when Jennifer Chiaverini announced her stand-alone historical fiction novel, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” depicting the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth from “Lizzie’s” point of view.
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” immediately dives into the storytelling of Elizabeth Keckley and the Civil Warm era in the US. One doesn’t have to be completely versed on the topic, as Chiaverini has clearly conducted in-depth research, thus bringing the period to life. Her descriptions are vivid, clear, and told with a mature and yet accessible prose. Not to mention, the story (and dialogues) feel authentic and not too modern making “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” more history than fiction (which is what I personally prefer).
The pace in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” has a steady beat and moves the plot swiftly; however, sometimes it is too vague and fast. Moments which could have left a stronger impact if explored were merely gazed upon and resulted in unanswered questions. Some passages are a little silly and too predictable but these aren’t overly abundant and do not weaken the overall tale (for example: one paragraph talks about Elizabeth’s joy at receiving letters from her soldier son while the next is a letter announcing her son’s death).
Elizabeth’s characterization is solid in terms of being able to hold the story; however, the theme of the novel (the relationship between the two women) is somewhat lost as Elizabeth’s true feelings and psyche are nowhere to be found in the shuffle. Although “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” aims to tell Elizabeth’s story, she is weak in terms of opening up her views. She almost feels like a side note and not developed. For instance, Elizabeth makes claims how Mary is her friend and she would die for her but there are merely words as the relationship is never truly expressed. Mary is also a feeble character and sort of sprawled out in comparison to her portrayal in other novels.
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is choppy and uneven in regards to excitement. Again, subject-wise, it would best appeal to history buffs as it focuses more on that versus fictional drama and thus, may be “dry” to some readers. “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” may not be exactly what all readers expect as the Civil War is more explored (but is quite compelling) than Elizabeth’s character or her relationship with Mary.
Chiaverini does illicit a strong and almost teary reaction upon the climax (Lincoln’s assignation); however, like the rest of the novel, it doesn’t involve Elizabeth directly. When Elizabeth does try to create a response, it always feels forced and involves a comment about her race which is never related to the events at hand and is “thrown in there”.
The end of “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is surprisingly strong and finally reveals Elizabeth, her feelings, and her personality. Sadly, it takes the entire novel to do so. The end also features a silly attempt of Chiaverini’s to include herself (meaning Chiaverini) in the novel which is not necessary and is odd (you must see for yourself what I am alluding to). Historically, the work is quite accurate although the author’s notes are vague and could have used more elaboration (although Chiaverini does mention books for further reading).
In terms of fiction, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” is a solid 3 rating. However, for history buffs and Mary Lincoln fans (this novel is a great introduction to Mary); the novel receives a 4 and is therefore dependent on the reader’s subjective view.
Off topic, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop picturing Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln in the novel… ...more
Even though John Wilkes Booth is known for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln; there were other individuals involved in the plot. One of those coEven though John Wilkes Booth is known for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln; there were other individuals involved in the plot. One of those conspirators was Mary Surratt, who owned the boardinghouse where many of the plans were made and was also the mother of another plotter. Kate Clifford Larson clears up the muck and spotlights Surratt’s role in “The Assassin’s Accomplice”.
Larson opens “The Assassin’s Accomplice” with a brief (very brief) introduction of Surratt’s childhood and young adult life before transitioning into a description of the assassination plot. Thus, “The Assassin’s Accomplice” is not a thorough portrait or biography of Mary and rather attempts to pinpoint her role and position in Lincoln’s death.
To elaborate, there are many pages which barely even mention Mary and instead describe the greater political climate, Civil War, and the assassination plot (and other plotters). In other historical portraits claiming to focus on a single individual; this emphasis on extra material result in a filtered view of the person and is a reason for complaint. However, Larson’s background descriptions are very much relevant to the topic and help to better understand each step in the assassination of Lincoln which opens up Surratt’s own thoughts/views. The text is very smooth and makes perfect sense in conveyance.
Speaking of text, Larson’s writing is intelligent, suspenseful, and exciting with a pace of a dramatic murder-mystery fictional novel. Larson’s detective-esque descriptions are filled with strong research and historical merit stimulating the reader and encouraging onward reading. This method of presenting information results in retaining the information much more easily than if Larson went with a drier, scholarly route.
At times, Larson repeats herself when information is blurry or a smooth transition is unclear. Also lacking is Larson’s ability to convince of Mary’s level of participation in the plot with such comments as, “At this time, Mary became much entangled in the web…” but then doesn’t explain how or why, leaving unanswered questions and an absence of clear proof of Mary’s actions.
After the plot is discussed, Larson describes the court trial and Surratt’s testimony which includes actual quotes/dialogue. Some of these chapters lack thorough information, while others are squirming with facts and require the reader to put “The Assassin’s Accomplice” aside in order to absorb it all. The issue, however, is that the book doesn’t really capture Mary’s role and is more about the conspirators and trial, overall. Without a doubt, the trial material is dramatic and gripping but the text is more like a transcript without much commentary from Larson.
Unfortunately, “The Assassin’s Accomplice” claims to acknowledge feminist issues and the precedent of Surratt being the first female executed in US history but this link is weak with Larson barely exploring the angle; although it could have strengthened the work, making it seem less of a summary and recap.
The conclusion of “The Assassin’s Accomplice” is quite strong, emotional, and memorable with its minute by minute descriptions of the days leading up to the execution of the conspirators, the execution itself, and a summary of the aftermath/lives of those involved. This is supplemented by morbid but tantalizing photos from the execution resulting in a crisp ending.
It should be noted that “The Assassin’s Accomplice” features some editing errors such as misspelled words (i.e. the word ‘ar’ instead of ‘at’ on page 178) and uses few sources (although the ones used are primary). On the contrary, Larson introduces characters in such ways that further research is enticed (someone please write a historical fiction novel on Anne Surratt, Mary’s daughter!).
Despite not being perfect, “The Assassin’s Accomplice” is a well-written, riveting work which not only educates on the murder of Abraham Lincoln; but does so with a strong and moving narrative which truly captures the time period. Larson’s research blended with her writing style is extraordinary and the book is therefore much recommended for those interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or conspiracies. ...more
Mary Todd Lincoln is known for two things: being the wife of Abraham Lincoln and for her speculated insanity later in life. Sadly, Mary’s incarceratioMary Todd Lincoln is known for two things: being the wife of Abraham Lincoln and for her speculated insanity later in life. Sadly, Mary’s incarceration in an insane asylum was heightened by her only surviving son, Robert; forever marring their relationship. Uncovering private documents from Robert’s own files; Mark E. Neely, Jr. and R. Gerald McMurtry illuminate this dark period of Lincoln history in, “The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln”.
Encompassing research from Robert’s private documents and primary letters regarding Mary’s insanity; readers would expect “The Insanity File” to be gripping beyond measure with revealing explanations of discourse. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case as “The Insanity File” is somewhat distanced and aloof with the authors over-emphasizing their stance to not offer any biases. This results in many unanswered questions and an absence of ‘juicy’ tidbits one would hope to receive from the primary information.
Furthermore, Neely Jr. and McMurtry have the tendencies of being both repetitive and venturing off on tangents. These strands attempt to explore the outside factors which affected Mary but are instead dry and distracting. However, when the focus is on Mary, “The Insanity File” is quite interesting and is enjoyable to read.
“The Insanity File” is positive source material for fiction authors or for historical reports as the information is detailed and chronological in presentation which can support the skeleton of a narrative. In fact, I’m quite positive that I could name a couple HF novels on Mary which must have used “The Insanity File” as a major source.
The biggest downfall of “The Insanity File” is the nonexistence of exploring why events happened as they did. Obviously, the documents don’t contain this information but the reader is thus left confused and inquiring. However, this means that “The Insanity File” is a strong introduction to the topic. Plus, the text is not technical in jargon (i.e. law text) and is therefore accessible to the general reader.
In terms of strengths, the authors of “The Insanity File” provide a more rounded image of both Robert and Mary versus the stereotypical personas they usually receive. Furthermore, Neely Jr. and McMurtry stress the value of the differences in insanity accusations and court cases in Mary’s time with that of what we are familiar with today.
The conclusion of “The Insanity File” (titled as such) provides more of an insight into Neely Jr. and McMurtry’s views of Mary’s proposed insanity while also exploring the case and laws which effected her confinement. Although more gripping than other portions of the book; this is still not as illuminating as potentially possible. Following is an appendix, which contains 25 of Mary’s hand written letters, in full. This is much more gratifying as it allows the reader to judge Mary’s own writing and make self-hypotheses. “The Insanity File” also contains two sections of black-and-white photos.
Although the premise of “The Insanity File” is bold due to its inclusion of primary material; the execution is flawed and the text is dry. Those familiar with Mary Lincoln will not gain new information but granted, “The Insanity File” was published in the 80s so it is not surprising that the text is dated. “The Insanity File” is recommended for quick source work (the book is short) or dedicated Mary fans but otherwise it can be skipped. ...more
A lot of pressure comes to those who play the role of a President’s wife. Pressures the “average” person can’t always fathom. One can only imagine theA lot of pressure comes to those who play the role of a President’s wife. Pressures the “average” person can’t always fathom. One can only imagine the immense life of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of our beloved Emancipator. It is debated whether Mrs. Lincoln was “crazy” or just caved into the pressures of the role and the mother of a devious son. What do I think? We’re all a little crazy…
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life is an immediate page turner with smooth and easy-to-read text. I found myself instantly putting off other tasks just to read “one more page”. The text begins with a background portrait of both Mary and Abraham beginning at their childhoods and upbringing. These portions were not too in-depth or menial and presented the reader with a deeper understanding of how both childhood traumas and joyous events can be used to gauge adult behaviors. Both Abraham and Mary are portrayed as relatable, enough so that I could see myself in their actions.
On the negative front: I did find that larger chunks focused on Abraham’s childhood and then subsequently on the Lincoln marriage and combined family life/logistics versus an insight into Mary’s psyche. There WERE moments of revelation but Catherine Clinton failed to focus wholly on what made Mary “click”. Much of the book was more on politics than Mary’s solid reactions.
Additionally, I would have preferred more annotations and hard resources. Yes, the notes and bibliography are lengthy, but these weren’t quoted enough throughout the text. A pattern appeared of personal Lincoln letters being mentioned and wetting the reader’s appetite, but then Clinton would only include one quoted line (if anything at all) versus a letter presented in full.
Another issue was with Clinton’s strenuous efforts to remain unbiased on her subject. Often times, she made comments along the lines of, “We, as historians, don’t have proof on (fill in the blank) so we can only stipulate that (fill in blank again)". History authors tend to go too far on either end of the spectrum: either too biased or no bias at all which loses touch with the attempted point. This caused the book to simply read as a retelling of events in the life of Mrs. Lincoln (a timeline) versus compelling or unheard of information. Monumental events such as the death of Mary’s father, grandmother, and youngest son (Eddie) all dying within close intervals; barely received more than a page of text versus following and explaining her grief. Stipulations were even made relating to these intense events with text such as, “Burying Eddie might have been one of the hardest things the Lincolns have ever done” and “It might have pained her to see the toddler next door in Eddie’s plaid shirt”. I’m not a huge fan of “might have’s” in history novels. Stick that in historical fiction.
Don’t despair, however, because there are some persuasive and argumentative moments using research and hard facts to dispel myths and propaganda but these are too far in between for my taste. Plus, some humorous family antidotes fill the pages involving child/father relations such as son Tad requesting a pardon for a Thanksgiving Turkey (which has been now exercised by every subsequent Presidential family) and “court trials” for some of Tad’s toy soldiers.
Mrs. Clinton’s work does at time feel a bit disjointed, chunky, and repetitive. It almost appears to have been penned in a different order than the final manuscript which repeats passages… or Mrs. Clinton simply has bad memory.
The novel finally begun to focus more on Mary’s life and consciousness after Lincoln’s death around page 250: perhaps a bit delayed for some readers.
On a personal note, I don’t believe Mary was crazy. I believe she many have had anxiety disorder, OCD, and maniac depression (with bouts of abandonment issues). I believe these disorders also negatively complimented the opium’s diagnosed for her illnesses and sleep deprivation. Nowadays, most Americans suffer from these ailments and yet, aren’t considered crazy. Times have changed.
Regardless of my (many) complaints, I did highly enjoy this book. It wasn’t what I expected (an in-depth, hearty look into Mary’s life and brain); but it was an enjoyable overall portrait suggested for an intro to Mary’s life. Although I am strict with historical fiction, I actually suggest Janis Cooke Newman’s, “Mrs. A. Lincoln” for a terrific historical fiction read which dives deep into Mary’s mind.
By far, this is one of my favorite historical-fiction books. Newman succeeded in capturing the nuances, pains, entertainments, thoughts, and emotionsBy far, this is one of my favorite historical-fiction books. Newman succeeded in capturing the nuances, pains, entertainments, thoughts, and emotions of a wholly tragic and yet strong hero: Mary, the FIRST "First Lady".
If you see the other reviews, much debate comes across regarding whether Mary was a strong, feminine role model who simply wanted the love of her husband and children, or one with insane tendacies and paranoid thoughts. The fact that this debate exists, demonstrates that not only was Mary a complex creature but that Newman was able to successfully bring this complexity to light. Job well done.
Although for the record, I believe that Mary was more strong than anything and that yes, she has some "crazy" behaviors, but this was merely those that she was driven to due to her strife. People do crazy things when trying to emotionally survive. Plus, her actions weren't crazy, they were more psychologically obsessive-compulsive by nature.
Newman intricately weaved a smooth blanket of the storyline of Mary recalling her life while in a mental institute. The modern and past storylines were clearly delineated and you felt for Mary during both times.
One of the standout characters? Son Robert Todd. Stubborn and prenticious, I grew to hate him. There was so much that was clear to me in Mary's actions that Robert just wasn't seeing. Whether he was a bad person or just a rebellious son, is debatable but Newman, again, brought the character to life.
Strong, emotional, passionate; this novel has brings Mary and her family to life. You will never view the Lincolns the same again....more