Book review: Carnegie’s Maid

This is my first novel by author Marie Benedict. But I picked it up because of my fascination with America’s Gilded Age, and the fact that I knew little of the early years of famous Robber Barron (and generous philanthropist) Andrew Carnegie.

Benedict is a Pittsburgh native, and so Carnegie loomed large as a powerful, local figure for her. I liked that she revealed the character of the young Andrew by introducing a fictitious Irish maid into the Carnegie household during the years 1863-1867.

This has long been a fascinating era for me, when America shifted from a facsimile of the European, landed nobility (dominated by bloodlines and agrarian holdings) to the rise of the upstart industrialists of the post-Civil War era, especially in the areas of railroads, coal, iron, steel and telegraphs.

Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, made his fortune in America in railways and telegraphs, and his rise is depicted well in this novel.

His story is told through the capable viewpoint of Clara Kelley, a young Irishwoman who must flee her homeland following the devastation of the Potato Famine and her father’s involvement in ths struggle for Irish independence.

An interesting historical fiction novel, especially aimed at readers interested in America’s Gilded Age and the rise of the Robber Barons. The life of a young Andrew Carnegie is shown through the eyes of a newly arrived Irish lady’s maid.

Her foothold in the New World will ensure financing for her destitute family, as well as the possibility for the whole family to emigrate in a devastating period for the Emerald Isle.

But Clara’s whole existence is built upon lies. Irish Catholics were not viewed postively in nineteenth century American society, so she slips into the persona of a Protestant Anglo-Irish woman from a good family fallen into hard times to secure a position as a Lady’s Maid for Andrew Carnegie’s mother. This lie keeps her in a precarious situation, even as romantic feelings burgeoun between Clara and the young Andrew.

Although Clara’s intelligence sparks interesting discussions between the industrialist and his mother’s lady’s maid, including interesting discussions on how Carnegie’s businesses work and how he become wealthy through investing in stocks, some of it pulled me a bit out of the time. Clara’s persona took on a seemingly more modern spin at times, which slightly weakened the story for me.

Nevertheless, it was an engaging read with interesting information about Andrew Carnegie’s younger years and a glimpse into life during America’s Gilded Age.

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