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An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley

Review

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley

Mary Todd was a poor little rich girl who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. She had plenty of material things but little attention and affection after her mother died in childbirth when Mary was just seven years old. Her father remarried shortly thereafter, and his new wife Betsy was a very reluctant stepmother to the six Todd children. The Todd family owned slaves, and Mary often ran to Mammy Sally for comfort and support. She kept Mammy Sally's secret --- that the flowers painted on the fence were a sign for runaway slaves. At a young age Mary realized that something was horribly wrong with the institution of slavery.

Betsy bore several children, and the crowded household was often chaotic for the two sets of youngsters. Mary and Betsy were always at odds, and Betsy finally got rid of Mary by enrolling her in boarding school. When Mary visited her married sister Elizabeth in Springfield, Illinois, she met a young country lawyer. After a peculiar and lengthy courtship, Mary married Abraham Lincoln in November 1842 and gave birth to four sons.

Lizzy's background could not have been more different from Mary's. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, Lizzy was born a slave on the Armistead Burwell plantation. Both her mother Agnes and stepfather George were slaves; George had a different master and couldn't see his stepdaughter much, while Aggy was nurse to the 10 Burwell children and the only seamstress in the household. Like all the other slaves, Lizzy feared being sold and sent south to work on a plantation.

At age four Lizzy was given household chores to do. At age five she received her first beating, an experience that taught her to trust no one. She did learn to read and eventually became an expert seamstress. She realized that only by developing skills --- which her master could sell --- could she eventually purchase her freedom. She was given to her master's son, whose wife disliked Lizzy. Lizzy stood up to the woman and endured more beatings as well as being sent to work for other people. One of her masters repeatedly raped her, and she bore a son.

Lizzy was determined to be free. Her half-brother was a kind man who helped her untangle some complicated legal problems. In 1855 she and her then-teenage son George purchased their freedom and moved to Washington where Lizzy became a seamstress to the wives of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other powerful, influential men. Mrs. Davis even invited Lizzy to return to the South with the Davis family when the threat of civil war loomed large. Lizzy decided that she and George would be better off in the North, so they stayed in Washington.

Her reputation as a talented seamstress grew, and she eventually came to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary found a friend and confidant in Lizzy, much like Mammy Sally was during Mary's childhood, and Lizzy was able to overlook Mary's various personality quirks.

Much has been written about Mary Todd Lincoln over the years, and most of it is not particularly complimentary. In AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP, award-winning author Ann Rinaldi gives readers an opportunity to lift the curtains of history and better appreciate the life of a complicated, troubled and somewhat misunderstood historical figure.

Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 1, 2007

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley
by Ann Rinaldi

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2007
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 243 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0152055975
  • ISBN-13: 9780152055974