Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini

I was shocked when I first heard the premise of this story--Mrs. Ulysses Grant owned a slave? And brought her with her to the battfield on the Union side during the Civil War? Huh? I had to read this.

Mrs. Grant is Julia, who grew up outside of St. Louis, on a plantation. Missouri, although it did not join the Confederacy, was a slave state (you might remember The Missouri Compromise from American History class.) And her personal slave, Jule, remained her personal slave, even after her marriage, despite Ulysses being an abolitionist (technically, her father had given her Jule, but not signed over the paperwork, so while she could have talked with her father, she did not herself have the legal standing to free Jule, had she wanted to. Or at least that's according to the novel.) Jule often stayed back at Julia's father's house though (which she preferred, as she was married to another of his slaves) and Julia's in-laws did not appreciate her bringing a slave to Ohio anyway.

This novel tells the whole of Julia Grant's life, from about age 16 when she meets Ulysses, a young officer stationed nearby, through their rough early married years when they were so poor that Ulysses was selling firewood on street corners, through the war, his presidency, and beyond, although the bulk of the book is the first 20 years or so of their marriage, through the war. After that the passage of time speeds up and we zip through the presidency quickly and the years afterward even faster.

I had expected Julia and Jule to have a great relationship that would be the heart of the book, but that was not the case. They were friends as small children, but not after that. It wasn't antagonistic, but Jule was always aware that she was a slave and that it was ironic that Julia wouldn't even make the argument to free her, despite Ulysses's well-known feelings on the subject. Julia never even seemed to see the irony. And for a good half of the book, Julia and Jule aren't together at all and have no relationship. So the book wasn't quite what I felt it had been set up to be. And while it was well-researched, it was perhaps over-researched. It largely felt like a fictionalized biography of Mrs. Grant. Now that's all well and good and I likely would have read a book described that way, but that was more staid and stiff than what I was expecting. I also wish, as I do with most historical novels I read, that there was a longer author's note explaining what is and isn't fact at the end. It has though inspired me to move up on my TBR list by quite a bit, Grant by Jean Edward Smith.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

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