Chiaverini makes women central players in history in ‘Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule’
History is written by men and in most cases they minimized or completely ignored the critical role women played in shaping the events of the past. Chiaverini corrects this in her latest novel released last week, “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule.”
A mix of well researched fact and imagined fiction to fill in the gaps of the historical record, Chiaverini tells the story of Julia Grant, the wife of celebrated Civil War General and President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant, and Jule, a slave Julia kept from childhood until she seizes the opportunity to run away.
The story begins in Missouri in 1844, nearly 20 years before the beginning of the Civil War when Julia meets Ulysses, a lowly soldier with elite training preparing to depart for a conflict that would become the Mexican American War. The pair fall in love and secretly become engaged to be married. But when the engagement is revealed, Julia’s father objects vehemently, saying his daughter is not cut out for the life of a soldier’s wife, traveling from camp to camp. Little does he know his daughter will not only follower her husband from camp to camp, but from front to front, living with her husband in each headquarters as he leads the Union to victory.
After a multi-year engagement, during which time Ulysses saves the life of Julia’s brother in the Mexican American War, Julia’s father agrees to the match and the two set off to begin their married life that will be filled with traveling from one location to another.
Meanwhile Jule, a slave owned by Julia’s father and given to Julia as a gift when she was four years old, falls in love with Gabriel, a stable boy and slave owned by Julia’s father. Initially objecting to marriage because of the uncertainty that they would be able to stay together, Julia finally agrees to marry Gabriel when Julia leaves Missouri with her new husband and leaves her constant companion since childhood behind. But the joy of being left behind with her husband is short lived, because while life as a slave was untenable, Jule quickly finds that there are much worse positions than being a maid to Julia.
The story alternates narrators between Jule and Julia giving a glimpse into the lives of both the white aristocracy and poor black slaves desperately seeking freedom. Julia struggles to raise her four children and support her husband as he resigns his position in the military and transitions to civilian life only to reenlist and rise to the highest ranks at the outbreak of the Civil War. Jule, torn from her husband, struggles to reconcile the feelings of duty to Julia, whom she has known nearly her entire life, and resentment for being kept as a slave even though Julia has married an abolitionist and is a leader in the fight to end slavery.
Eventually resentment wins out and Jule takes an opportunity to slip away to a city as far away from St. Louis as she can think of, Washington City. Little does she know that it won’t be long until her former master begins to frequently visit the city as Ulysses rises higher and higher in rank and Julia follows him wherever he goes.
“Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule” is an excellent mix of fact and fiction, telling the stories of the women who had just as much impact on the events that shaped our history as the men who get the credit in the history books. Chiaverini mixes in a few references to her other works of historical fiction regular readers will enjoy. Elm Creek Quilt fans looking for a story framed around needlework, will not find what they are looking for in this novel. Jule’s talents lie as a hair stylist and maker of special face and hair creams. Julia sews only as a matter of necessity and then only sparingly as a cross eye impedes her vision, making sewing difficult and painful.
Chiaverini is in the middle of a book tour to promote the release of “Mrs. Grand and Madame Jule” with remaining dates in her native state of Wisconsin. Click here for more information.
A copy of “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule” by Jennifer Chiaverini was provided for review. This post contains affiliate links. Opinions are all my own.