Fictional ‘Carnegie’s Maid’ filled with details that give aura of authenticity
Andrew Carnegie’s life changed drastically when he was 33. Until then, Carnegie was a bold and often merciless businessman, willing to do almost anything that would benefit his interests.
In “Carnegie’s Maid” (Sourcebooks), Heather Terrell (writing as Marie Benedict) imagines a scenario in which an actual letter — and a fictional young woman — spur the industrialist’s sudden tilt to philanthropy.
“Something is happening that is causing him to make this life change,” says Terrell, who lives in Sewickley. “To me, it was the perfect place to insert an unknown immigrant’s voice.”
Thus was born Clara Kelley, a young Irish woman who becomes indispensable to Carnegie’s mother and the object of Andrew Carnegie’s affection.
“I created a person who could have served in that capacity, but we’ll never know for sure,” Terrell says. ”In creating Clara Kelley I felt like I was unearthing her, too, because I was putting into history a person who so many people had fulfilled that role. I found that I love writing stories about real historical figures, but in this case I felt like I wanted a story about Clara Kelley.”
The story is personal for Terrell, who grew up hearing tales about her Irish ancestors, many of whom lived in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Like Clara Kelley, they arrived in America seeking opportunities that were nonexistent in Ireland. Working long hours as maids and domestics, they selflessly sent money home to feed their families in Ireland, and often brought family members to this country.
Terrell’s previous book, “The Other Einstein,” was about Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s longtime companion whose contributions to the physicist’s work may have been overlooked. But “Carnegie’s Maid” attempts to portray generations of anonymous women who were denied many of the same rights afforded to men.
“I really did write this book not as a representation of one women but as a reminder that all of us are immigrants,” Terrell says. “And all of us played an enormous role in the building of this country. We often hear the stories of a very few — usually men — who sort of fashioned our country. But there are so many millions of unknown and silent immigrants who upon their shoulders our country was built.”
“Carnegie’s Maid” is filled with details that create an aura of authenticity. The daily lives of domestics like Clara were filled with mind-numbing tasks, whether it was cleaning outer garments with brushes or the endless mending of garments (there were no retail shops selling clothing). Clara arrives in America via the port of Philadelphia, not Ellis Island, and the cross-state trip to Pittsburgh, by way of horse-drawn carriage, takes six days.
But the heart of the story is the seemingly sudden change of heart that shapes Carnegie’s philanthropic interests the rest of his life.
“It was such an odd time in his life for him to do that,” Terrell says. “Something momentous was going on behind scenes for him to do that.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.