Review: Carnegie's Maid

Carnegie's Maid Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

I received a Digital and Paper Review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

3.75 Stars

I read Marie Benedict's previous outing, The Other Einstein, with dissatisfaction that was probably borne of her lack of understanding of collegial work and intellectual attributions in the sciences and her overstating Mileva Maric's contributions to Einstein's Theory of Relativity for dramatic effect. (Once again, even if Mileva's discussions with Albert contributed substantially to his solving the relativity issue, she should have been credited for her contributions- there was no need to fabricate a situation in which he stole an idea of hers when clearly she never showed independent work in this particular area. With her math skills and his interest, she impacted his work and deserved full credit for her contribution. That contribution and its recognition was worth a book, right there.) Still, in spite of my dissatisfaction, Benedict is a capable writer and I wanted to read something of hers in which I was less vested. Being of Irish descent myself, and having ancestors that made their way to the US about the same time as Benedict's protagonist Clara Kelly, I was intrigued by what this book might have to offer about the Irish immigrant experience in the mid-1800's.

I'm happy to report that I find Carnegie's Maid is an all-around better book. The premise of the book centers on the stimulus for Andrew Carnegie's becoming a philanthropist and famous builder of public libraries. The reason behind his becoming a keen philanthropist remains a mystery to this day. Benedict provides us with an interesting idea- that it was a woman who influenced him and specifically, a woman from the social class from which he originally stemmed. For romance junkies out there, it's important to note that rather than being a conventional romance, this is a novel of the realities of social classes of the period, how difficult it was to gain purchase on a higher class, especially by marriage, and how ill-regarded the nouveau riche were. Relationships between the upper classes and the servant class never ended well. But here, that's not much of a worry. Stealing the identity of another Clara Kelly in order to get a ride and potential work in Pittsburgh, the heroine of this tale keeps her family, who are in dire straits, ever to the fore of her thoughts. She does so unfailingly. The view of Irish poverty both at home and in the US, as seen through Clara's eyes, is harrowing.

Andrew Carnegie is, in Benedict's hands, by turns a rather cutthroat businessman and a man struggling to remember his lean start in life. Born in a one-room weaver's cottage in Scotland, he and his parents emigrated to the US on borrowed funds and he eeked out a grinding living at the age of 13, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in a Pittsburgh bobbin factory, Carnegie rose to be the wealthiest man in America and in acts of stunning philanthropy, donated an estimated 90% of his accumulated wealth to various libraries, universities, and foundations by the time of his death.

As I finished the book, I have to say that I thought that one likely conclusion about Andrew Carnegie's desire to provide access to books and education for the public was simply what that same access had meant to his mother, Margaret, who as even Benedict pointed out, read often and widely once she had access to books in the US. What greater way to honor his mother than with this legacy of free and public access to books and the education they provide.

There were various details that I thought stretched my imagination about the degree of contact between Andrew and Clara, or even simple details about things like whether it would be a lady's maid serving at dinner in a pinch, vs. a housemaid, or whether the lady's maid would hold the chatelaine versus the housekeeper. But let it all go and have a fun read. It may make you, like me, want to pick up a biography of Carnegie, or read about Irish immigrants in America.

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