Saturday, October 20, 2007
An Unlikely Friendship
Rinaldi, Ann. 2007. An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley.
Reading An Unlikely Friendship is like reading two completely different books. Okay, maybe some slight exaggeration, after all both stories are of real women who lived in the nineteenth century. Both lived in the American South. Both lived during the time of slavery. The difference? One was the daughter of slaveholders. The other was a slave. So there stories are so very different from one another. The thing is, Ann Rinaldi's writing makes them both compelling narrators. I knew very little about Mary Todd Lincoln going into this book. And I had never heard of Elizabeth Keckley. So my expectations were to learn about them both. And that mission was accomplished. The writing was never boring. The first 131 pages of the novel belong to Mary Todd Lincoln. We learn that she had an often unhappy childhood after the death of her mother. Her father remarried very quickly. And according to Mary Todd, she was an absolute nightmare of a stepmother. Very harsh. Very angry. Very one-sided. What do I mean about one-sided? Well, she favored her children and disliked the ones from his previous marriage. She always treated Mary with dislike or distrust. Mary was close friends with her Mammy. She was the one person that she loved and trusted above all others. And she was more than happy to keep her Mammy's secret. Mammy would help runaway slaves. Unbeknownst to her parents, their house was a stop on the underground railroad. Mary's story is one of loneliness, boredom, unhappiness. She didn't have many friends and her family wasn't always supportive. Her father was a bit on the neglectful side as well. She felt unloved at times, and her father would buy her presents all the time to cheer her up. But as far as spending time with her, listening to her, loving her...well, money speaks louder was his philosophy. While the narrative of this half is good, it's nothing compared to the second half of the novel.
From pages 135-241, the novel belongs to Elizabeth Keckley or "Lizzy." This is how the narrative opens: And so I was born and my birth registered in the mistress's household diary. I was listed right above the recipe for Muster Day gingerbread. And right below the new shipment of household supplies. "Two bristol boards, a bottle of varnish, a varnish brush, and writing paper." It goes on to say, My birth did not go unnoticed on the large plantation. With every birth of a slave child the master is that much richer. And I suppose that with my mother I would have been sold for $1300. (135). A few pages later it begins, If I were to be sold at age four, the price I would bring, after being weighed on the scale, would be about $300. A little shady girl like myself isn't worth much. And then only if sold along with my mother, whose price would be about $1100 because she is such a good nurse and seamstress. I already knew that at age four. I heard Masa talk about it, though I knew he would never sell off me and Mama. Only planters of no account sell off their own daughters, although some have been known to do it. But no matter how much I am worth, here is how I lived and why. (138). I was just blown away by the writing. Lizzy's story has so much depth--so much to say. So much heartache to share. This is her story of how she came to become more than a slave, more than property. About how she worked hard and earned money so she could buy herself out of slavery. It's a great story, and one that I think needs to be told.
Here is my favorite bit of her story:
I believe that Moses and Solomon in the Bible were negro, that lightning never strikes a sycamore tree because Jesus blessed them, and that springs of water in the ground come from the steps of angels. All these things my mama taught me. And I'll always believe them, because not to believe certain things is to die. (142)