Andrew Carnegie is best known for being one of the richest men in America having made his fortune by leading the expansion of the steel industry, and towards the end of his life he was a leading philanthropist. Marie Benedict’s book has been written as a fictional account of how this man was moved to better the lives of others when his early years had been spent focussed on lining his own pockets. To do so she looked at her own ancestors and imagined a young, bright Irish girl becoming a Lady’s Maid to Margaret Carnegie, Andrew’s mother.
We first meet Clara Kelly in December 1868 as her journey across the Atlantic is coming to a close and she’s got to find a way to get to her relatives in Pittsburgh. Clara despite being the second child of her parents has been sent to America to provide a ‘Plan B’ for the family since their leased farm is being carved up following the potato famine and now there are real concerns that the Landlord has it in for Clara’s father.
The premise to the book where a farmer’s daughter ends up being a Lady’s Maid is a great vehicle for studying the man at the centre of the book, Andrew Carnegie. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there is a relationship of sorts between Clara and Andrew, after all both were immigrants, Andrew moving the US from Scotland when he was barely in his teens. With the Carnegie family coming recently to wealth the need to never descend into poverty again is one of their key drivers for continued success. I’m pleased to say that the author doesn’t skimp on the less than moral and perhaps legal actions of this great business leader either before his later transformation into someone who champions the education of all.
It’s also nice that this book is populated by strong and intelligent women. Margaret Carnegie, whilst maintaining a tight grip on her household is also very much involved in her son’s business and Clara is also keen to learn more about business as the book progresses.
This is a heavily fictionalised account and shouldn’t be read as anything other than that but that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating insight into the lives of immigrants to America during and after the American Civil War. The descriptions of life both in Ireland and Pittsburgh make for illuminating reading especially the lives of Clara’s distant relations Patrick and Maeve who bring up an ever growing brood in a small and dirty ramshackle home. Patrick working at the Iron foundry whilst Maeve takes in needlework to be completed by poor light in the evenings. By contrast Clara’s efforts to become indispensable in the Carnegie household may mean long hours brushing hair, cleaning and darning clothes but she lives in luxurious surroundings although I pitied her the lack of friends apart from the former slave Mr Ford within the almost prison-like existence.
A fascinating historical tale which is indeed one explanation for Andrew Carnegie’s transformation into one of the best known philanthropists with the book ending with the opening of the free library in Boston built by Andrew Carnegie.
I’d like to thank the publishers Landmark for providing me with a copy of Carnegie’s Maid ahead of publication date of the 16 January 2017.