Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Review: Mrs. Grant & Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini

Title: Mrs. Grant & Madame Jule   
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini    
Published: March 2015, Dutton  
Format: ARC Paperback, 400 pages   
Source: Publisher  

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 Jule 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.

My thoughts: This is Jennifer Chiaverini's latest historical fiction novel and I enjoyed it as much as I have her previous books. I admit that history was never really my favorite subject in school, but lately, I've been reading some really great historical fiction books that have left me wanting more, especially anything dealing with the women of US history. I've always been fascinated with the first ladies of our nation and love that Jennifer Chiaverini has started writing about them.

I knew next to nothing about Mrs. Grant before starting this, so I found this book to be incredibly insightful into her life. I had never heard that Mrs. Grant had vision problems and that she used her slave, Jule, to help her "see" things. Neither woman had a problem with their status in life until Julia Dent became Julia Grant...then things began to change for both of them. Ulysses Grant was opposed to slavery and made his views pretty well known on that front and so when Julia went off with him, Jule took it upon herself to make her escape. 

When I started the book, I didn't realize that most of the book would be separate accounts of the two women. Once Jule ran off, they were never reunited. Jennifer Chiaverini states at the end of the book that there is not much documented about Jule, so most of what she has written is what she imagines has happened. The lives of Ulysses and Julia, though, were well documented.

I find it fascinating that wives of generals would follow their husbands around during the Civil War. In fact, Mrs. Grant often preferred to be closer to General Grant than apart from him, despite the danger of the war. She also enjoyed being First Lady and did quite a lot to help her husband, both before becoming president and while he was president. Their marriage certainly stood the test of time and love.

Having become rather obsessed with anything to do with Mary Todd Lincoln, I did rather enjoy the scenes that she was in. Again, I felt that Jennifer Chiaverini really highlights the fact that she was a bit on the crazy side. I also appreciated the fact that Jule was able to forge a relationship with Elizabeth Keckney, the dressmaker that won her independence from slavery due to her skill at dressmaking. Jule was following suit with her own business, called Madame Jule, and while Jule and Julia never did reunite, Jule did keep abreast of Julia's whereabouts and found out that Julia had been purchasing her products. 

What I love about this book and Jennifer Chiaverini's previous historical fiction books is that it makes me want to go out and read more books about these women. I now want to pick up another book about Julia Grant and even would like to read about Varnia Davis who is mentioned towards the end of the book. And I still want to read more about Mary Todd Lincoln. Have you read any books about these women that you would recommend? And of course, it goes without saying that I'm also anxious to see who Jennifer will be writing about next!



  1. Thank you for the review on a book which was new for me.

    1. Thanks Mystica...have you read anything by Jennifer Chiaverini yet? She's really a great author and has some really good books out. She also writes a series, called Elm Creek Quilts.


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