by Marie Benedict
Genre: Historical fiction
As a lover of books, I assume you are one if you landed on my book blog, you have probably entered a Carnegie library at least once in your life.
The first to offer free access to libraries for all, Andrew Carnegie was an important figure in the life of the author’s ancestors. In Carnegie’s Maid, Marie Benedict uses the skills she demonstrated in The Other Einstein to try to shed light on the transformation of the man, from a “tycoon, long-rumored to be heartless”, into “the world’s first philanthropist”.
She followed some historians’ theory that his metamorphosis may have been inspired by a personal relationship.
The book opens in 1868, with Andrew Carnegie writing a letter and trying to honor the memory of a certain Clara.
We then follow Clara from November 1863 to April 1867.
To help her desperate family losing farm land and fearing starvation in Ireland, a 19 year old crosses the Ocean in 42 days to find a job in Pennsylvania. Having no technical skills to offer, despite the excellent education she received at home, rare at the time for young girls, she uses her cleverness and ends up being hired as a lady’s maid at the service of Mrs Carnegie.
A smart observer, “elegant in her thinking” (chapter 15), she will straddle the difficult gap between servants and masters and do all she can to save her family. How will she manage, at what cost?
This is actually a superb portrait of life in the US in the 1860s, with all that’s going on:
the aftermath and impact of the Civil War, with the industrial forces at play
industrialization, with its horrors and filth; business dealings, iron, railway, telegraph; investing
the evolving situation of slaves
the difficult relationships between Catholics and Protestants
the situation also in Ireland
the circumstances of immigrants
the relationships between servants and masters, how downstairs and upstairs can or cannot mingle
Why didn’t anyone tell me that industrialization would look like biblical hell?
All the immigrants…who came to America seeking a better life but settled instead for a soot-infested home and dangerous work in the mills.
By playing the part of perfect servant, by definition deaf and blind to the events occurring before me, I was present for the most confidential of conversations.
Mr Andrew Carnegie is presented as a complex character, difficult to understand. His evolution and his inner struggles made total sense. His relationship with Clara is shown with a lot of balance. This is NOT a historical romance, the author managed skillfully to avoid a possible trap.
I don’t want to give away anything. The book is smartly built, with a constant tension with dangers looming in Clara’s family, with the possibilities of losing her position, and the risks in her relationships with the Carnegie’s family, and how she uses her mind to come up with a solution, whatever the price.
I also enjoyed a lot the character of John Ford, the cook, a former slave.
The book is ultimately a homage to libraries, to books and to the love of learning in order to succeed in life and help others. We see the importance of books in the education and evolution of Clara and of the Carnegies.
I listened. And I learned.
This library, he maintained, made him into a successful man…
I had never heard of a library open to the public without a hefty subscription fee…
I cannot describe to you the impact that library had on my life and my success. It quite literally made me who I am today.
Just as Marie Benedict gave voice to the unrecognized Mrs Einstein, here through a woman with a strong character, she superbly gives “voice to the otherwise silent stories of the thousands of immigrants who built our country. Then and now”.
VERDICT: Superb portrait of the US in the 1860s. A beautiful homage to immigrants, to the love of learning, and to libraries.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
What other book highlighting the role of libraries have you read?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this ebook for free from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.