Monday, April 4, 2016

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule - Jennifer Chiaverini

Summary:   The New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Mrs. Lincoln's Rival imagines the inner life of Julia Grant, beloved as a Civil War general’s wife and the First Lady, yet who grappled with a profound and complex relationship with the slave who was her namesake—until she forged a proud identity of her own.

In 1844, Missouri belle Julia Dent met dazzling horseman Lieutenant Ulysses S Grant. Four years passed before their parents permitted them to wed, and the groom’s abolitionist family refused to attend the ceremony.

Since childhood, Julia owned as a slave another Julia, known as Jule. Jule guarded her mistress’s closely held twin secrets: She had perilously poor vision but was gifted with prophetic sight. So it was that  became Julia’s eyes to the world.
And what a world it was, marked by gathering clouds of war. The Grants vowed never to be separated, but as Ulysses rose through the ranks—becoming general in chief of the Union Army—so did the stakes of their pact. During the war, Julia would travel, often in the company of Jule and the four Grant children, facing unreliable transportation and certain danger to be at her husband’s side.

Yet Julia and Jule saw two different wars. While Julia spoke out for women—Union and Confederate—she continued to hold Jule as a slave behind Union lines. Upon the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jule claimed her freedom and rose to prominence as a businesswoman in her own right, taking the honorary title Madame. The two women’s paths continued to cross throughout the Grants’ White House years in Washington, DC, and later in New York City, the site of Grant’s Tomb.

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is the first novel to chronicle this singular relationship, bound by sight and shadow. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Of all the ladies of the Civil War era, I think our history books forget Mrs. Julia Grant, wife of former president and revered general Ulysses S. Grant, the most.  Born into a slave family, growing up as a slave owner and quite content with the peculiar institution, she marries a Union soldier and has to find her way in an abolitionist government.  While she agrees that secession isn't legal, the thought of abolishing slavery is too foreign to her to understand.  Jennifer Chiaverini explores this dichotomy in this book, telling the story of Grant and her slave Madame Jule.

This is such a sweet book. The love that Julia Grant had for her husband is evident, and the amount of research that Chiaverini has put into the novel is clear.  It is an easy read as far as plot movement, but as the players moved deeper into the Civil War era and as General Grant's history started to be portrayed, I found myself reaching for my phone to check a few details.  I had to keep reminding myself that this is historical FICTION, fiction being the key word there.  Chiaverini glosses over Grant's raging alcoholism, attributing it to migraines, softens Mrs. Grant's opinions and feelings toward Mrs. Mary Lincoln dramatically, and in various other ways rosies up documented history.  It frustrated the purist in me at times, but not enough to stop reading.

I loved the relationship between Julia and Jule at the beginning of the book, before Julia was old enough to "understand" slavery.  Jule was the book's most interesting character, and while her history is so spotty, with the history books telling us next to nothing about her life after she left the Grants, I would have loved to see her character in this book more fully developed after that time, especially since the author had played with history quite a bit already.  It was a missed opportunity that could have truly catapulted this book in my esteem.

Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the sensitive reader:  This is a book that explores the relationship of slaves with their owners.  In one scene, Jule lays out the fears every slave has and demands an answer as to why she can't just be free.  Julia's reply, while in keeping with the thinking of the time, was difficult and uncomfortable to read.  Other than that, it's pretty squeaky clean!

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