Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Orphan Train VS Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: Dubuque Tournament of Books, Round One

This week we'll be posting the judges' decisions for the first round of the 2nd Annual Dubuque Tournament of Books. To see an overview of the judges and contestants, check out this blog post.
Judge: Megan

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Review by Megan Gloss
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker offers a historical - yet thoughtful, poignant and fascinating - account of the unlikely friendship that evolved between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Keckley, a former slave who bought freedom for herself and her son in St. Louis in 1860. She went on to fashion a professional reputation and successful career as a seamstress upon relocating to Washington D.C., dressing the city's high society and political hierarchy.

It was March of 1861 that Lincoln singled out Keckley from a number of other hopefuls to fill the role as her seamstress. Keckley was responsible not only for creating the First Lady's elaborately detailed gowns, but for dressing Lincoln in the very designs Keckley had suited just for her.
A touching bond was formed between the two women in their commonality through tragedy. Keckley's son - who was more than 3/4 white - had enlisted in the Union Army and was killed in battle. After the death of Lincoln's first son, Keckley began to serve as a trusted confidant and companion to the First Lady, offering emotional support during that loss, and later, during the loss of her husband in the assassination that stunned a nation already divided and reveling in turmoil and grief.

Keckley saved scraps from many of the gowns she made for Lincoln, piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. And after the Civil War, she authored a memoir, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, offering an intimate glimpse of the Lincoln family. It resulted in a scandal that forced the First Lady to abandon ties with her once-trusted "modiste" and best friend.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a moving story of the enduring companionship between two women that lives on through the archives and a snapshot of the rich history of that time. Author Jennifer Chiaverini did an admirable job in digging deep into the history, yet telling a story that is both relatable and inspiring.

Review by Megan Gloss

Molly is quickly nearing the age where she no longer can be a part of the foster care system. A community service position assisting the elderly Vivian is the only promising prospect keeping her out of a youth detention center and out of further trouble.

As she helps Vivian sift through possessions and old memories in her home, Molly unexpectedly discovers that she and the woman she thought she'd have nothing in common with are one and the same. As a young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose fates and futures were eerily uncertain.

Together, the two form both a liberating and comforting bond, reaching conclusions to unanswered questions they have carried with them throughout their lives, and ultimately, offering each a sense of closure and, for perhaps the first time, the thought of hope and possibility in the future.

Orphan Train is remarkably moving and its characters, well-developed and strong.
Decision: It was a difficult selecting one book over the other in this first round pick. While both were well-written stories of resilience, the unforeseen destiny of unexpected friendships formed out of unfortunate circumstances and intriguing characters, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker spoke to me more and was more relatable. I enjoyed the historical backdrop and authenticity of the novel and also felt a connection to each of these women and a fascination with the bond they shared.

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