Being from western Pennsylvania, though more to the north than Andrew Carnegie was, I requested an ARC of Marie Benedict’s Carnegie’s Maid because historical fiction is my genre of choice and because you can’t live in western Pennsylvania without having some idea of who Andrew Carnegie was and what he did. I’ve seen him covered a hundred times on History Channel documentaries about the ‘men who built America’ but I’ve never read a biography or a history. And I wouldn’t know where to start, so I started with this book, involving a real man’s interactions with a fictional maid in his household.
Fictional biographies of real people can be hit or miss but maybe this book doesn’t count as that because Clara Kelley is entirely fictional. There’s an argument to be made that Clara, an Irish immigrant from a tenant farm in the 1860s, is too… perfect but it’s also easy to take her as a summary of those that were good, and even a allegory to Carnegie, an immigrant himself. Almost like telling Carnegie’s story in a different way.
That Clara takes on an entirely new identity in order to send money back to her family in Ireland, pretending that she is knowledgeable about the things the ‘new money’ Carnegies are not is an interesting twist I haven’t seen in other novels. It wouldn’t work in all of them, and it’s the real-ness of the Carnegies that makes it work here. Once again, it is almost a story of America that an immigrant was able to come and be something newly created, whether it’s Andrew Carnegie going from factory boy to steel baron or Clara becoming a ladies’ maid instead of a seamstress or washerwoman.
Having not read much about Irish immigrants to America at the time of the Civil War, I can’t say if the backstory Benedict gives Clara is realistic, but it is something I’m going to research more.
The key plot to Carnegie’s Maid is the friendship between Clara, who serves as a maid to Carnegie’s mother, and Andrew. There are hints of a, forbidden, romance but Clara is, after all, fictional. So it’s never more than would-be, could-be romance and an incredibly strong friendship that I’d like to hope Andrew Carnegie might have had with someone. The idea that someone like fictional Clara influence Carnegie’s philanthropy is a nice one to have.
Their relationship ends badly, with secrets spilled and secrets kept, but how could it not end badly when Clara never existed? That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story. It is. It is so good that I sometimes forgot that Andrew Carnegie was real. I found myself incredibly invested in the personal life that Benedict created for him. But, in an epilogue of sorts, Benedict ties some of Carnegie’s philanthropic ideas to Clara’s influence and that is a nice way to end the novel.
Andrew Carnegie is an incredibly important figure in American history and, from my novice perspective, he is done justice here.
This novel has passed the ultimate test I give to historical fiction novels… it has made me research something real, made me learn more about something I don’t know a lot about, and made me reach for more books!
(I received a copy of CARNEGIE’S MAID through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. This review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)