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

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

4.6 10
by Ann Rinaldi

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On the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his frantic wife, Mary, calls for her best friend and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, but the woman is mistakenly kept from her side by guards who were unaware of Mary Todd Lincoln's close friendship with the black seamstress. How did these two women--one who grew up in a wealthy Southern home


On the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his frantic wife, Mary, calls for her best friend and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, but the woman is mistakenly kept from her side by guards who were unaware of Mary Todd Lincoln's close friendship with the black seamstress. How did these two women--one who grew up in a wealthy Southern home and became the wife of the president of the United States, the other who was born a slave and eventually purchased her own freedom—come to be such close companions?    With vivid detail and emotional power, Ann Rinaldi delves into the childhoods of these two fascinating women who became devoted friends and confidantes amid the turbulent times of the Lincoln administration.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Kathie Fitch
The story opens as the Lincolns are preparing to depart for Ford's Theater. After the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln pleads to have her best friend and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, brought to her. Because of the confusion of the moment and because Elizabeth is a black woman, she is denied admittance to her friend. The author then launches the story of Mary Todd's sad childhood, during which her mother died when she was very young. Her father quickly remarried, but Mary's stepmother did not like her and sent her off to boarding school where she was considered an "orphan." Upon graduation, she went to live with her sister in Springfield, Illinois, where she met and married Abraham Lincoln after a tumultuous courtship. Mrs. Lincoln was a woman of many moods, all of which she brought with her to the White House. She was criticized for her unrestrained spending on remodeling her new home and on her own clothing. Enter Lizzy Keckley the expert dressmaker, former slave, and the story of Lizzie's childhood begins. As the mulatto daughter of the plantation master, she worked as a house slave, caring for the master's legitimate children and learning how to sew. The horrors of slavery that Lizzy endured are described in wrenching detail. Eventually buying her own freedom, she became the dressmaker of many wealthy and influential women in Washington and became the only one who could understand and calm Mary Todd Lincoln. The assumption from the title is that these two women were friends from their youth, but they came from two different worlds and never met until adulthood. Each story is fascinating and filled with remarkable gems of historical memorabilia to create a very satisfying read.
Children's Literature - Meredith Kiger
This historical novel traces the lives and relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley. The story begins around the time of Lincoln's assassination, a time when Mary and Elizabeth's relationship was both business-like and personal. The story then reverts to the upbringing of both girls, one the daughter of well-to-do Southerners, the other born a slave. The ensuing chapters trace first Mary's early life and then Lizzie's within the setting of pre-Civil War America. A young reader should have some familiarity with this period of history, and, in fact, the epilogue and author's notes should be read first to bring meaning to the improvised dialogue and characterizations throughout. The story is as much about the time period as it is about each woman and their relationship, and would benefit from being read aloud with an adult as an interpreter of the times, socially, politically, and economically. Mrs. Lincoln's escalating personal problems and her reliance on Lizzie for moral support is complicated for young readers to understand, but could be an excellent way to personalize and make meaning out of a time period and event that otherwise seems remote.
School Library Journal

Gr 6–9
Fictionalized first-person accounts portray the first 20 years of the contrasting lives of Lincoln and Keckley. Two brief factual chapters and an epilogue abruptly and briefly summarize the next 25 years and document the "unlikely friendship" that developed once their paths crossed. A wealth of 19th-century details and references enriches both narratives. Mary Todd has a privileged but controlled upbringing in Kentucky where an array of siblings, attentive Mammy Sally, an affectionate but aloof father, and a proud, devoted grandmother help her to cope with a critical, harsh stepmother. In contrast, Lizzy, a master's mulatto child, learns through hardship and heartbreak to live the slave adage, "Got one mind for the boss to see, got another for what I know is me." When the women finally meet, Lizzy has purchased her freedom and has established herself as a renowned dressmaker. Her patience and skill help the fashion-obsessed, volatile First Lady deal with life in the White House and public criticism of both her husband's antislavery views and her family's unrefined "backwoods" status. Although the two figures share a common time and place and an employer-employee codependence, the actual depth of their mutual understanding and friendship is unclear. Nonetheless, they have authentic voices and present meaningful perspectives on social conditions and slavery. Both personalities are well drawn, with real anxieties and emotions.
—Gerry LarsonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
The lives of Mary Todd Lincoln, born into a comfortable slave-holding Kentucky family, and Elizabeth Keckley, born in Virginia of a slave mother and slave-owning father, are presented as a novel in two parallel fictional biographies. Although Keckley accomplished much in her life, she is best known as seamstress to, and confidant of, the wife of President Lincoln. Readers will certainly learn and perhaps find interest in the education of both, as well as their living conditions and their lives. Despite the chasms of difference, their childhoods were alike in their unhappy events (Keckley's, of course, was far more serious because of her bitter servitude). An epilogue completes the biographies and a bibliography provides sources. However, one must ask why the well-spoken Keckley uses terms such as "chilluns" and "massa." Above all, what part of this is fiction and what is not? Caveat lector: This is a fictional treatment, not a biography. (Historical fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher

“Fascinating and filled with remarkable gems of historical memorabilia to create a very satisfying read.”—VOYA
“Authentic . . . Both personalities are well drawn, with real anxieties and emotions.”—School Library Journal

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Mary Todd
Lexington, Kentucky
I HAVE LONG SINCE learned not to believe idle stories. Heaven knows I grew up on them. For years as a child I was terrorized by family stories of great Uncle John being killed at Blue Licks by Indians. Or how Uncle John escaped from Indians after running a gauntlet and his brother Sam was captured and Uncle John ransomed him for a barrel of whiskey.
 Not to mention Mammy Sally’s stories about Jaybird reporting once a week to the Almighty about our misdoings for which, somehow, we’d be punished. Jaybird reported only to God, she said.
 But for some reason I did believe the rumor told to me by my sisters Frances and Elizabeth of how, only weeks after our mother’s burial, our father was courting another woman.
 I believe it because my older sisters were friends with Dr. Warfield’s daughter, Claire. And he’d been in attendance at my mother’s death and was a friend of my father.
 They tell me this woman is from Frankfort, the state capital where my father goes frequently because he is a state senator. They say she has a seventy-three-year-old mother who is the head of society there. That she herself wants to be called Betsy, and that she hopes to lift our family to new standards of elegance.
 Grandmother Parker, who lives just up the hill from us here in Lexington and is my own mother’s ma, says it is an indecently short time after Ma’s death for Pa to go courting.
 My sister Frances says Pa sent his new lady a miniature of himself painted by Lexington’s own Matthew Jouett.
 Elizabeth Humphreys she is called. I made it my business to find out everything I could about her. She is no stranger to Lexington. Two of her uncles taught here at our Transylvania college.
 She is going to bring her own black servants with her when she comes. I wonder how that will sit with Mammy Sally.
 Jaybird can tell God all he wants about me. I know already that I do not like her.
IT WAS IN THE AIR a long time, this silent courtship of Pa’s. Auntie Ann, his sister, who ran the household since Ma died, warned us not to ask him about it. So we didn’t. But we watched him closely at the dinner table to see if he was changing toward us.
 For all we could see, he wasn’t.
 He still asked Levi if he’d been a good boy that day and ruffled his hair when he asked it. He still told my spoiled sister Ann how pretty she was. He still discussed social matters with Elizabeth and Frances. And he still promised me a pony if I was a good girl. He’d been promising me a pony for ages. As long as he kept promising, I figured my hope for a pony was still alive. Though I did wonder if a pony would fit in with Betsy’s idea of a new standard of elegance.
 No, he wasn’t changing toward us. He was still Pa, who loved us and wouldn’t let anything come between us.
SOMETIME AROUND CHRISTMAS in 1825 my father called us all into the front parlor after dinner and cleared up the rumors. I was seven years old.
 “My situation has become irksome,” he said. “People of ill will are saying bad things about me and my intended, Elizabeth Humphreys. So I have become engaged to this dear lady and hope soon to wed. I need to complete my domestic circle so I can enjoy the repose and happiness which the world can never give.”
 Pa talked high words sometimes. But we understood. Frances and Elizabeth kissed him. I hugged him because I wasn’t going to be left out of any part of his domestic circle.
THAT’S HOW WE LEARNED we were to get a stepmother. But I didn’t see the need for one. As far as I was concerned, the domestic circle we had was complete enough. Mammy Sally ran the kitchen and the other servants. And I didn’t see anything wrong with Auntie Ann running the house. She even did the male chores when Pa was away, oversaw the carriage, disciplined the servants, and bought the staples. Only bone I had to pick with her was that she favored my little sister Ann too much. Ann was the darling of her eye. I was almost eight the year Pa wed and Ann was going on two, and Ann took all the attention from me. Same as she’d taken my name when she was born. I was Mary Ann up until then, until they gave the second part of my name to her, and now I’m only Mary.
 It’s a lonely name, I can tell you. It needs a second part. Anybody can see that.
 Elizabeth and Frances have their own set of fine-feathered girlfriends who can’t talk about anything but dresses and boys. Levi, a year older than me, and George, only one at the time, had the full attention and love of Pa. All I had was Grandma Parker to stand up for me. And she was fifty-two.
I HAVE HAD A LOT of afflictions in my life, don’t think that getting a stepmother was the first of them. Now that I am nineteen and about to leave Lexington, Kentucky, to live with my sister Elizabeth and her husband in Springfield, Illinois, I can write of them without hurting too much.
 Before I was three years old I lost my place as the youngest in the family to brother Robert when he was born. When I was four I lost my baby brother. Robert died at fourteen months. I was uncommonly fond of Robert and his death affected me terribly. Then when I was five I lost part of my name. At seven I lost my mother when my next brother, George Rogers Clark Todd, was born.
 At almost eight I got a new stepmother.
WE WERE TO CALL her “Ma” Pa told us in one of the most stern moments I ever recollect seeing him in. “Not Betsy, but Ma.”
 We all said yes.
 “And if you have any concerns about the household, bring them to her. She wants to be in charge.”
 Concerns about the household? I’d had nothing but concerns since Auntie Ann had left us, as soon as Pa and Betsy came home from their wedding trip.
 Concerns about the household? That phrase went through my mind as I stood in the kitchen and watched, transfixed, as Judy, one of Betsy’s slaves, stood grim-faced, her two hands holding a large bowl of soup. I could smell the soup from where I stood. I loved that soup, all made with preserves from our garden.
 Across the kitchen stood Mammy Sally, who had made the soup. She’d caught Judy sampling it from the serving bowl and scolded her.
 “Here, take your ol’ soup,” Judy said and threw the bowl on the floor.
 The smash of the china bowl sounded throughout the house. The soup splashed all over the place. I even got some on the hem of my dress. Mammy Sally backed away, held her hands to her face, and cried. “Who wants your ol’ soup.” Judy stamped outof the kitchen.
 Just then Pa appeared at the kitchen doorway. “What is this? What’s going on here?”
 “Judy threw the soup on the floor,” I told him.
 He looked shocked. I felt sorry for him. So much for repose and happiness, I thought. And, as if he could read my thoughts, he looked at me. “Mary, go and get your mother,” he said quietly. Then he turned and went back into his study.
 For a moment I thought that he really meant my mother. The look on his face was so confused that for all I knew he could have been wanting her then, just like I was. But I ran upstairs to get Betsy.
 She was seated at her dressing table, making up her hair. “What’s all the noise?” she asked.
 I just stood there like a jackass in the rain. “Ma,” my voice cracked when I said it. “The servants are fighting. There won’t be any soup for supper.”
 “And why is that?”
 “Judy threw it on the floor.”
 “Well, she must have had provocation.”
 So that was the way it was to be. Her servants could do no wrong. “Pa needs you,” I said.
 She stood up. “Is there no order in this house?”
 I shrugged. “Your Judy threw the soup when Mammy Sally found her eating out of the serving bowl.”
 “There must be more to it than that.”
 New standards of elegance, I thought.
 “And you don’t have to look so pained when you call me Ma, either. Now say it again. And say it strong.”
 I swallowed. “Ma,” I said.
 Tears came to my eyes. “Ma.”
 She swept past me. “I hope I don’t have to speak to your father about you. Now go and tell the others to come to the dinner table.”

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Meet the Author

ANN RINALDI is an award-winning author best known for bringing history vividly to life. She lives in central New Jersey.

ANN RINALDI is an award-winning author best known for bringing history vividly to life. A self-made writer and newspaper columnist for twenty-one years, Ms. Rinaldi attributes her interest in history to her son, who enlisted her to take part in historical reenactments up and down the East Coast. She lives with her husband in central New Jersey. Visit her online at www.annrinaldi.com.

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An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley met in 1861 when Ms. Keckley, "a free black woman who had purchased her own freedom," came to the White House to interview for the position as the First Lady's dressmaker.

Despite her success among Washington, D.C.'s elite, "Lizzie" never believed she had a real chance at securing the position. Little did she realize that she and Mrs. Lincoln were about to embark on a friendship that would last a lifetime.

AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP is a unique breed of historical fiction in that doesn't follow a traditional linear model of storytelling.

Author Ann Rinaldi opens by depicting the day of President Lincoln's assassination, giving us the story from both Lizzie and Mary's perspectives throughout. She then moves on to depict each woman's life from early childhood to young adulthood, each followed by non-fictional, mini-biographies of their lives up to the point of their initial meeting. Ms. Rinaldi closes the novel with a final section describing the womens' lives and friendship after they left the White House.

What makes this novel such a great read is the author's careful attention to historical detail. While it's impossible to be certain of Lizzie and Mary's exact conversations and thoughts, knowing the events described have been verified - not "created" or amalgamated for editorial purposes - gives AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP a level of authenticity sorely lacking in most books in this genre.

And while I consider characterizing the relationship between a white woman of privilege and a mulatto woman born into slavery during the Antebellum period a generous overstatement, these two women undoubtedly formed a bond that was unique to their time and place in history - a feat always worthy of consideration.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great. I loved this book. It is really intresting to see how much the two women and their childhoods contrast. Beautifully researched, and excellently written, i strongly recomend An Unlikely Friendship by Ann Rinaldi.
hockey22 More than 1 year ago
Awesome book!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It gives you a different perspective on Abraham Lincoln's assassination and Mary Todd Lincolns life. It also told how some slaves were treated back then and how others were treated way differently. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes learning about history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very enthralling read of the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress. I only wish it was a biography instead of historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I remember reading this years ago and falling in love with it. Great, detailed, shows the power of friendship.
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