Sunday, December 13, 2009

Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin~★★★★

Author: Carol Berkin
Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, & Julia Dent Grant
Release Date:
September 8th, 2009

Book Jacket: "Here are the life stories of three women who connect us to our national past and provide windows onto a social and political landscape that is strangely familiar yet shockingly foreign.
Berkin focuses on three "accidental heroes" who left behind sufficient records to allow their voices to be heard clearly and to allow us to see the world as they did. Though they held no political power themselves, all three had access to power and unique perspectives on events of their times.
Angelina Grimke Weld, after a painful internal dialogue, renounced the values of her Southern family's way of life and embraced the antislavery movement, but found her voice silenced by marriage to fellow reformer Theodore Weld. Varina Howell Davis had an independent mind and spirit but incurred the disapproval of her husband, Jefferson Davis, when she would not behave as an obedient wife. Though ill-prepared and ill-suited for her role as First Lady of the Confederacy, she became an expert political lobbyist for her husband's release from prison. Julia Dent Grant, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was a model of genteel domesticity who seemed content with the restrictions of marriage and motherhood, even though they led to alternating periods of fame and disgrace, wealth and poverty. Only late in life did she glimpse the price of dependency.
Throughout, Berkin captures the tensions and animosities of the antebellum era and the disruptions, anxieties, and dislocations generated by war and its aftermath."

Taryn's Review: I really enjoyed this book and was glad it caught my eye at the library. Many times we are taught the masculine side of history and women's roles are overlooked, even deemed insignificant. Carol Berkin chose three interesting women for her study.

The book isn't representative of all women whose lives were touched by the Civil War. All three were white, elite women married to prominent figures of the time. Yet, it was still interesting to read about the similarities the women shared and the difference of opinions they had. The book was especially nice because I could read one woman's life story, leave the book for a while, and then come back and start a new person's story.

I think Berkin did a fantastic job on each woman's story, but at times I felt Varina's story was overshadowed by her husband, Jefferson Davis, Confederacy President. When reading Varina's story, I would wonder what Varina was doing when the story focused on Jefferson. I also wished Berkin would have mentioned their ages more often. I know she gave the birth date for each, but as a reader, it would have been helpful if at times Berkin threw in a phrase like, "Now forty-seven, Grimke..." She did occasionally, but normally onlu at pivotal points like when the girls got married.

It's not say this, but I really disagreed with the book jacket when it talked about Julia Dent Grant. I didn't think she was ever really restricted by her marriage or motherhood. In fact, of all the women in the book, Julia seemed to most enjoy her role as "Gen. Grant's wife," and she didn't seem to mind that she lacked knowledge about the pressing topics of the day. She seemed perfectly happy attending to her domestic duties as wife, mother, and hostess.

Ultimately, the book was a great read. Again, I think Varina's story got overshadowed quite a bit (thus 4 stars), but it's one I would highly encourage anyone to read, especially to anyone who wants to more about some of the historic women that experienced life during America's horrific War Between the States.

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