by Julie Failla Earhart
The beloved author of the Elm Creek Quilt series, Jennifer Chiaverini, made a mid-January stop at the Central West End’s Left Bank Books to promote her new stand-alone historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.
I was the first to arrive for the event, and I was glad I arrived early. A few minutes after 6 p.m., I took my seat. A blast of Arctic air swept through the store as more and more people arrived. And they kept coming. Spike, the resident cat, visited with a number of patrons. And the crowd kept coming. By the time Chiaverini arrived a few minutes before 7 p.m., the 30 or so chairs had been occupied for quite some time. The crowd, estimated to be between 100 and 150, was a mixture of men and women, with the latter being the dominate group. I think many of the men may have brought their wives, but many may have also been motivated by Steven Spielberg’s newest movie Lincoln. As we waited, I chatted with a woman who had driven from Effingham, Illinois, to see her favorite author. Beside me sat a woman who was in town on business from Houston and could not resist the chance to meet Chiaverini.
Chiaverni is a slender woman with shoulder-length brown hair. The crowd began to clap as she weaved her way to the podium. After a brief introduction by a Left Bank bookseller, she stood confidently and began with a plug for independent bookstores. She reminded her audience how important the Indies are. “After all,” she said, “those big online retailers aren’t going to bring an author to your hometown.”
The author went on to explain why it was important that she visit our town on this tour. “Elizabeth Keckley lived in St. Louis during her slave years. She belonged to the Hugh Garland family between 1847 and 1855.” In 1855, Keckley bought her freedom for herself and her son George for the sum of $1,200. “By taking in sewing during her free time, she was able to make approximately three dollars a day. You can imagine how long this would have taken.” The Keckley’s were lucky though. When some of her patrons learned that she was working herself to exhaustion, they pooled their resources, helping her to become a freed woman.
Keckley’s gift was sewing. She became a master seamstress. “In those days,” Chiaverini said, “Women’s bodices fit like wallpaper.”
Chiaverini also shared the importance of Keckley’s memoir, Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave and four years in the White House. This small book had a devastating impact on her relationship with the First Widow. (For those interested, this book can still be found in print today, including at the St. Louis Public Library.)
Chiaverini then read a selection from Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, telling the story of Keckley’s first meeting with Mary Todd Lincoln, how she became almost part of the family, and was a trusted and close adviser. Look for my review of this new novel coming soon.
After the reading, Chiaverini answered questions and wrapped up the evening by signing books and taking pictures with her fans.
Chiaverini has authored 17 novels in the Elm Creek Quilts Series and five collections of quilt patterns inspired by her novels. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, on her website, and her blog. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and two small sons.