Most of you who follow my book reviews are aware of my passion for historical non-fiction. When Carnegie’s Maid was offered up as a free monthly option from Amazon, I had to grab it. I was so glad I did.
The only thing with which I was disappointed is that it’s fiction. Though based on any number of people the main character isn't a 'real' person. Confusing it even more, the events are real, other characters are real people, but the story itself isn’t true… but it could be.
Author Benedict offers this at the end of the story:
“Unlike my other books for which I can pinpoint a particular historical document or relic that gave rise to the story, the initial spark behind Carnegie’s Maid did not come from a single artifact or piece of artwork. The idea began with my own family over hundred years ago, when my Irish immigrant ancestors, deprived of schooling and opportunities, used the first Carnegie library in Pittsburgh to educate themselves and their families.”
That’s good enough for me for this beautiful story.
We start out with the main character, Clara Kelley, on a ship bound for New York from Ireland. The entire Irish landscape is in its worst famine in history, jobs are nowhere to be found, farmers are unable to keep the land they’ve farmed for years and if they do have land, the soil is not producing. Clara’s family supported and encouraged her new life in the United States in hopes of her making enough money to support herself and send money home to help. It’s a story many of our own country's Irish and Scotch ancestors share. She learns of the continued and worsening devastation through letters from her family:
“Then, he says, people were dying in the roads by the hundreds, and bodies were piled up on street corners as there was not room enough in the churchyards for all the dead that needed burying.”
Upon her arrival, there’s a bit of a twist that changes the path of her life, her family’s life, and that of the wealthy Carnegie’s. As is obvious by the title, Clara ends up as a lady’s maid to the matriarch of the Carnegie family. To Clara’s (and my surprise) she and Mrs. Carnegie have a lot more in common than anyone would have believed.
To say Clara and the matriarch built a real relationship would be inaccurate, but they certainly had moments that lead me to believe they could have, if only Clara hadn’t built a real relationship with the eldest Carnegie – Andrew.
Their love of reading poetry was what brought them together to form an interesting friendship. Reading about how women were required to behave during the 19th century is something that always fascinates me, however when you add her “station” in society as a lady’s maid, it becomes even more complicated.
A recurrent theme is how the Carnegie family built their wealth and though that may seem a bit boring to some, it truly isn't because Clara is involved. This is not only very unusual for the time but also a reminder of how much laws governing financial investments, lobbying, women and property ownership, and corporations have changed from them until now. Of course, lobbying is still a large issue in the United States but we’ll save that for another blog and certainly not in the Girl Gone Reading category. Let's stick with times have changed, and while we may shake our head at how things were done back then, there’s a very real happiness I felt for Clara by the end of the novel.
It didn’t end how I expected. Not even close, but I was very happy and satisfied with the overall outcome. It was such an engaging story despite it not being fully “true” that I will absolutely look for more novels by author Marie Benedict.
Give it a read and let me know what you think!