Famine threatens the livelihood of Irish men and women, forcing them to seek better, yet unknown opportunities abroad in America. It was not uncommon to see a young girl on her own, sometimes the family’s only hope for income, and starting a better life. Clara is just such a girl; coming from a family of 5, her mother and father deemed her the best fit to starting life in America on her own. Clara’s older sister, Eliza, is set to be married, and her younger sister is, well, too young.
Clara seems to be at terms with her change in life. She does what’s best for herself on the voyage over to America; keeps to herself, avoids those who are sick; so that she may have the best opportunity for a job. Clara is settled on having either to work for a mill, or a seamstress- when your family owns a farm, there’s not much to choose from when it comes to work, seeing as she wasn’t trained for anything. Clara’s father, however, saw to it that his 3 daughters would be taught as men; reading, having an opinion, etc. It is because of her father that Clara developed her sharp wit, that puts her at an advantage to stand out.
Surviving the voyage across the sea was a feat upon itself, arriving in Philadelphia, Clara’s biggest concern is quarantine. If one person on the boat is deemed unhealthy, then the entire boat is at risk; setting back the hopes and dreams of finding a job and earning a living. And of course human beings are still separated according to class, like prize chattel going to the slaughter. Our Clara is lower class, not that that seems to bother her one bit. The only promise Clara has at this point is a second cousin already residing in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania- scraping what little money she has together, her plan is to make it to her family and find what little work is available.
By some luck, a Clara Kelley from a “higher class” is missing- and readers are left to guess that the name Clara Kelley is very popular across the seas. Clara hesitantly comes forward ( I mean it is her name and all) to see what exactly they are looking for. It turns out the other Clara was promised for “high end” maid work; judging how unkempt our Clara is from her trip overseas, the valet is questioning if she is who she says. Without any options of proving her validity, the valet whisks her and two other girls off in a carriage.
Ironically Clara is taken to Pittsburgh to start a trial employ with Mrs. Carnegie. Quite a difference in scenery for an Irish farm girl:
Mrs. Carnegie is a tough mistress to work for. She likes things the way she expects them to be preformed, and if you deter from that expectation you are dismissed from service. Clara professed she was a quick learner- picking up on her mistress’ mannerisms, she becomes the ideal lady’s maid. Mrs. Carnegie also takes a liking to Clara, and it is in the private moments between the two of them that she softens, and asks Clara her opinion on societal trends.
As Clara gains confidence in her stolen role, she is reminded of everything she left behind. Receiving letters from home paints a sad picture of what life on the farm has become. She is further reminded of what her life could have been by visiting her relatives. Seeing how destitute a life working in the mill is, Clara bolsters her resolve to do whatever she could to restore her family’s farm. Taking the train home, she breaks down. Missing her family, keeping up her assumed appearance, she sobs in front of complete strangers. That is when her mistress’ son, Andrew Carnegie talks to her.
Stemmed by Carnegie’s generosity of bridging the servant-master gap, Clara starts observing his business practices, and the two secretly exchange business deals to further the Carnegie name. How far can a lady’s maid succeed in business?
Here we are again, with a book breaking the stereotypes of history classes. All throughout high school we are inundated with men: presidents, inventors, business proposals. Reading these historical fiction books however, gives me hope that ideally, women are the backbone of everything these men did. Goading them on in lucrative business proposals, pushing for presidency because they had a good heart, making friends in that inner most circle to gain a vantage point. What if, most (I’m giving men the benefit of the doubt here) men’s brilliant ideas, stemmed from a simple pillow talk with their wife?
In a time where women were more for tea parties, and social events, it’s encouraging to think that woman were just as forward thinking as we are today. It angers me to know that in the past people like me, who are openly opinionated, and not full of decorum, would be looked down upon because I couldn’t keep a comment to myself. Granted, that comment would be dripping with cynicism, but that’s who I am. And I know for a fact I wouldn’t last long in that time period.
Just like in “The Other Einstein”, it feels that for far too long men have been running with ideas stemmed from women and reaping the benefits. All the while women have been scraping nothing but bottom, trying to carve out a place for themselves. I love hearing untold stories of women, even if they are historical fiction.
Again, Marie Benedict knocks it out of the park with “Carnegie’s Maid”. I earnestly hope that he continues her work with untold stories of great women hidden in the monstrous shadows of men.
Look for “Carnegie’s Maid” hitting shelves January 16th! You can pre-order here. I was chosen to receive an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review. Given that fact, it has not altered my opinion on the book at all.