A general’s wife and a slave girl forge a friendship that transcends race, culture, and the crucible of Civil War.
Mary Anna Custis Lee is a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, wife of Confederate General Robert E Lee, and heiress to Virginia’s storied Arlington house and General Washington’s personal belongings.
Born in bondage at Arlington, Selina Norris Gray learns to read and write in the schoolroom Mary and her mother keep for the slave children, and eventually becomes Mary’s housekeeper and confidante. As Mary’s health declines, Selina becomes her personal maid, strengthening a bond that lasts until death parts them.
Forced to flee Arlington at the start of the Civil War, Mary entrusts the keys to her beloved home to no one but Selina. When Union troops begin looting the house, it is Selina who confronts their commander and saves many of its historic treasures.
In a story spanning crude slave quarters, sunny schoolrooms, stately wedding parlors, and cramped birthing rooms, novelist Dorothy Love amplifies the astonishing true-life account of an extraordinary alliance and casts fresh light on the tumultuous years leading up to and through the wrenching battle for a nation’s soul.
As someone with an interest in the American Civil War, I knew that Arlington National Cemetery was created in the grounds of Robert E. Lee’s plantation and that it was done so that the ‘traitor’ would never be able to return home. I also knew that General Lee was somehow connected to George Washington. I knew nothing of a slave being left in charge of Arlington during the war. Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray was a revelation in more than one aspect.
Because the book covers over 50 years it isn’t as detailed as some readers might like, and only the last quarter is set during the war. It focuses on Mary and Selina’s lives, dividing the chapters between their perspectives. While it’s known that the Custis and Lee families treated their slaves relatively well, Dorothy Love hasn’t shied away from descriptions of the way slaves were treated at other southern plantations. Nor does she ignore the instance when Lee demanded the physical punishment of three slaves who attempted to run away. While becoming an ardent supporter of the southern cause, George Washington’s great-granddaughter was conscious of his legacy and did her best to preserve it, a cause that became Selina’s after the Lee family was forced from their home.
Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray is based off extensive historical sources and quoted from various letters and documents. Among the select bibliography at the end are books written by General and Mrs. Lee’s children. General Lee’s original letter freeing his slaves is included in the narrative; their emancipation being a requirement of Mary’s father’s will. In an author’s note at the end, Love states that she has tried to “recount events mostly as they happened,” with only a couple of exceptions. Thanks to her extensive research, this biographical novel of a surprising relationship between a slave and a white woman can be appreciated by both Civil War history fans and the casual reader. It’s one of my favorite books of 2016 and will stick with me for some time to come.
Thank you to TNZFiction Fiction Guild for my complimentary copy of Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray, which I received in exchange for my honest review.
Have you read Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (a division of HarperCollins Christian)
Publication Date: 14 June 2016
Page Count: 400