“Carnegie’s Maid” by Marie Benedict. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook Landmark. Copyright 2018.
“Carnegie’s Maid” is a timely historical fiction in that the main character, Clara Kelley, experiences firsthand the challenges of being an immigrant in America. Although the story is set in the 1860s, the reality of immigrant life and the social stratification she experiences echo in the present.
Clara was never meant to be a lady’s maid, and it is only through mere happenstance that she is mistaken for the Clara Kelley who is destined for Mrs. Seeley’s placement as lady’s maid to Mrs. Carnegie. This Mrs. Carnegie is the mother of Andrew Carnegie, baron of railroads and iron and the benefactor of Carnegie libraries across the country. Clara’s story is the author’s imagining of what (or in this case who) influenced the young industrialist and brought forth the philanthropic nature by which he is remembered to this day.
The story is a common one, and fans of Downton Abbey will recognize the stratified society that American capitalists were recreating with their new found wealth in the new world. Although the Carnegies themselves were relatively recent immigrants from Scotland at the time the story is set, their desire to climb the social ladder has only grown with Andrew’s successes in business. Although the Civil War is raging during the first part of the book, Andrew has bought his way out of the fighting by paying for an Irish immigrant to take his place. Clara is aghast that someone would choose not to fight for their nation, but she is lulled by Andrew’s belief that his contribution to the growing railroad is of more service than his military contribution would be.
As the story continues, Clara awakens to the idea that she herself has a penchant for business, and grows closer to Andrew through his tutelage. Her one desire is to maintain the secret of her identity so she can keep her lucrative position and afford to send money back to her family in Ireland. As their situation becomes direr, Clara longs for a means to get them to America. Her business suggestions to Andrew lead to a successful venture with a telegraph company, and the seeds of Clara’s fortunes are sown. Andrew promises her 50 shares of the new company, and Clara holds out hope that she will be able to parley those shares into the cash she needs to rescue her family.
Yet Clara cannot deny her nature completely, and she finds herself angry with Andrew after a merger of two of his companies results in the layoffs of many immigrants who cannot afford to be without work. Her confrontation with him is an important turning point in Andrew Carnegie’s life, and truly the climax of the book.
This is a gentle read without a truly suspenseful moment, yet memorable in its depiction of the time and the excitement of the early industrial revolution. That Andrew Carnegie went on to be the father of free lending libraries across the nation brings the story to a satisfying close.
Deana Cunningham is the Branch Manager at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.