Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton, 2015. Hardcover, 400 pages.
This dual fictional biography focuses on Julia Dent Grant and Jule, the slave she owned for the majority of her life. After a prologue that showed both Julia and Jule playing together as children, the novel begins in earnest when Julia was a young lady who turned down the first proposal offered by young Lieutenant Ulysses Grant. The book then followed Julia and Ulysses courtship through the Mexican-American War, their early life at various army posts, and the times after Ulysses resigns his commission to spend more time with his family. Trips to White Haven are frequent, especially for Julia who would frequently take the children (they would have four) there to stay for long periods. Jule tends to Julia while at White Haven but did not travel with Julia to northern Army posts. Instead, she learns to be enterprising, a skill that pays for itself down the line. However, Jule is resentful for being kept in slavery.
Once the Civil War begins, readers will see how Julia supports her husband as he finds ways to support the Union. Ulysses, now working at his father’s leather shop in Galena, Illinois, helps to raise several regiments of soldiers. Eventually, he earns a new commission and begins his rise through the ranks. Ulysses hardly has a chance to be home, but during the war, Julia frequently came to his headquarters for long visits, sometimes bringing the children. Jule often now accompanies Julia to help with the children. During this time, Jule struggles with the desire to leave the Dent and Grant families and run way to gain her freedom. Julia starts to see how slavery, an institution she grew up with, may have been morally wrong. Towards the end of the war, Julia makes her home in the East with her husband, even coming under fire.
After the war, we see how Jule takes her hairstyling and potion making skills to create a business for herself. Julia and her family continue to be in the public eye, with General Grant eventually becoming president. Then the family is followed through the two terms of the Grant presidency and the long illness that would eventually claim Ulysses life.
The heart of this novel was the love story between Julia and Ulysses. Both came from vastly different backgrounds-she a slave-holding family and he a staunchly abolitionist family-but they made their relationship work despite the odds and their families against them. Yes, they had their disagreements, but they never let their love falter. Ulysses took every opportunity to spend time with his wife and children, even during the war, and Julia braved life under fire to spend time with her husband. Towards the end of the novel, as the great general faded, Julia had deep fears about losing the man she loved. Never was there a doubt that they had a deep love. The same goes for the love between Jule and her husband, Gabriel, the Dent family’s groom.
What made the first half of the book come alive for me was the fact I have been to see White Haven and Hardscrabble, both south of St. Louis, Missouri. White Haven is a national historic site. The house is open for tours, both the Dent’s living quarters and the slave quarters in the basement. The contrast was a shock. The barn in which Gabriel lived also still stands, but is now a museum about the Dent and Grant families. It is also from what I learned at the museum that I can say the novel is very historically accurate in all respects. Hardscrabble is not open for tours, but sits on what is now Grant’s Farm, owned by the Busch family of Anhauser-Busch fame, is pointed out on the tram tour through the grounds. The two sites are both easily seen in one day, as they are across the street from each other.
Compared to Chiaverini’s other Civil War “series” books, I rank Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule in the top two. My favorite is still The Spymistress about Elizabeth van Lew, the Union spy in Richmond. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, the first book, is a very good dual fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival about Kate Chase Sprague, daughter of President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, however was not that great. It read like a soap opera. All four of the lead women from those three books make appearances in Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, predominantly Mrs. Lincoln, nicely tying all of the books together. At the end Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis makes an appearance (she also cameo’s in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker) and I had hoped she would be the focus of the next “Civil War series” novel. Alas, she was not as Chiavernini turned towards the men. Last Christmas, she focused on the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Christmas Bells and the next, coming in September, will focus on John Wilkes Booth.
Sorry for the longwindedness! I had a lot to say in this review and it is also part reminiscent and history lesson.
Do you think you will read this novel? Since it has been out over a year, for those who have read it, what did you think?