Last updated: April 10, 2015
Book Spotlight/January 2014
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly; The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave, by Jennifer Fleischner. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is a fascinating look at the lives and friendship of two nineteenth century women. Historians have told us much about Mary Todd Lincoln, but Elizabeth Keckly has certainly not received her due.
Before it is possible to understand how two unlikely people could become friends, it is important to know the circumstances that brought a president's wife and a former slave and dressmaker to the moment of their fateful meeting. To take readers to that point, the author uses alternating chapters to discuss the circumstances and people that molded each woman. Lincoln was used to others stepping in and taking care of her when life got too tough and Keckly took on that role. As their friendship progressed, they shared difficult and heart-wrenching situations. The book gives an in-depth look at a friendship, and two very different women.
Although author Jennifer Fleischner is sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, her overall reputation will not likely change much based on this portrait. But Fleischner's history of Mrs. Keckly will certainly be a revelation to many readers. Keckly is portrayed as a strong-minded and talented woman who bought her freedom from slavery, lost her son on a Civil War battlefield and wrote a detailed memoir about her life and her time with Mrs. Lincoln. Throughout Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, the author offers readers a glimpse into the complicated relations between the races both before and after abolition. The book has been frequently praised for navigating this difficult task with tact and sensitivity.
Biographies that tackle more than one subject are not always successful, but this book offers many individual and collective stories that somehow come together and enhance both subjects.
(Note: author Jennifer Fleischner spells Keckly’s name with one “e”, but many sources spell it “Keckley.”)