Review: The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham

The first thing that caught my eye about this book was its absolutely stunning cover, and it’s even more beautiful in person! I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and easily found room on my schedule to read it.

I also thought the time period and setting would be appealing as I am a Civil War historian, I couldn’t wait to crack it open and discover the story of two sisters on opposite sides of the Mason Dixon line!

The two sisters were none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, future first lady, and Emily Todd Helm. Right away I was curious to see how this one unfolded. There are often stories about brother versus brother in the Civil War but not many stories about sister versus sister, especially such a well known sister in history!


he story of Mary Todd Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, two sisters on separate sides of history, fighting for the country they believe in against the people they love most

When the Civil War cracks the country in two, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln watches from the White House as the blows of a divided nation shake her people and her husband, President Lincoln, to their very core. As the news of wartime enter the Oval Office, Mary waits with bated breath, both for the hopes of a Northern victory as well as in distress of a bloody Southern defeat.

Mary, like many people during this time, have a family that is torn between North and South. her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the Confederates, and Mary is at risk of losing both the country she loves and the family she has had to abandon in the tides of this brutal war (Summary from Goodreads). 


What I think surprised me most about this one was how much I liked Emily. I was fully prepared to like Mary the best as she is the most well known and often most adored of the first ladies. But for me, I thought that Emily was much more relatable and I simply just liked her more. The biggest thing I thought this novel lacked was a true in-depth development of each characters. The story alternates between Mary and Emily and of the two, Emily was more developed in my opinion, which is why I think I liked her better, but I though that both characters could have done with a little more digging deeper into their characters.

That said, I did think this novel was interesting and had so much potential. I enjoyed the idea of two sisters being on the opposite sides of the battlefield as it were and I thought that even though they could have done with more development, I did like seeing how their relationship evolved over the course of the novel and thought it would intrigue readers—especially book clubs as there is sure to be a lot of interesting discussion to be had over the two sisters and their choices and how their relationships evolved throughout the war.

History buffs and historical fiction fans will enjoy a book like this. There are lots of historical bits about the war and for someone like me, I found it enjoyable and fun—a little on the long side—-but lots of facts added to its authenticity. I ended up giving this one 3.5 stars because I loved the history and the concept behind this book! If you love Civil War you will most assuredly enjoy this book!

Book Info and Rating

Paperback, 400 pages
Published October 1st 2019 by Sourcebooks Landmark
ISBN 149264708X (ISBN13: 9781492647089)
Free review copy provided by publisher, Sourcebooks Landmark in partnership with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and in no way influenced.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Genre: historical fiction

“Historical fiction at it best: A unique, intimate view of a character we thought we knew. The Civil War comes to life through two sisters on opposite sides, one the first lady of the not-so United States. And through it all, a fascinating family saga. I learned a lot and loved this book.” – Karen Harper, New York Times bestselling author of American Duchess

“Susan Higginbotham’s The First Lady and the Rebel is a meticulously researched and powerfully written account of the complicated and compelling relationship between the Todd sisters. Higginbotham’s two female protagonists are bonded by blood and love, but pulled apart by war. Set against the sweeping backdrop of our nation’s Civil War, this is the tragic and true story of human hearts both fierce and fallible, of deeply mixed loyalties, and of the imperfect but inspiring individuals who were asked to do the unimaginable. Moving and enlightening.” – Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress

“Susan Higginbotham has done it again-crafted a richly detailed novel that immerses readers in America’s Civil War. The First Lady and the Rebel explores the tragic story of a family and a nation torn apart, while shedding light on rarely reported events in the personal life of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s wife, and her sister, Emily Todd Helm, are devoted to their husbands and to each other, yet find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict as they face overwhelming grief and loss. The novel presents a devastating time and place rendered so vividly you’ll feel as if you’d lived through the war yourself. Higginbotham’s painstaking and extensive research is evident from the engaging first chapter to the novel’s moving conclusion. For those who like their historical novels based on real people, this book is a must-read.” – Amy Belding Brown, author of Flight of the Sparrow

About the Author

Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitor’s Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book wards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.


Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, October 1
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books

Wednesday, October 2
Review at Faery Tales Are Real
Review & Guest Post at Clarissa Reads it All

Thursday, October 3
Review at Broken Teepee
Review at Stephanie’s Novel Fiction

Friday, October 4
Review at Donna’s Book Blog

Saturday, October 5
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time

Monday, October 7
Review at Hooked on Books
Interview at Reading the Past

Tuesday, October 8
Review at The Lit Bitch

Wednesday, October 9
Review at Just One More Chapter

Thursday, October 10
Review at Unabridged Chick

Friday, October 11
Interview at Unabridged Chick
Review at View from the Birdhouse

Saturday, October 12
Review at Jorie Loves a Story

Monday, October 14
Review at 100 Pages a Day
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story

Tuesday, October 15
Review at Passages to the Past


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a paperback copy of The First Lady and the Rebel! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on October 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham

  1. Hallo, Hallo Anne,

    I was awaiting to reveal my thoughts on this novel before I dropped by to see what you felt as well – I am touring the route today as I was dearly curious – did more of us identify with Emily or with Mary? I personally was emotionally attached to Emily’s journey – she had the harder walk to live (for so many different reasons) whereas I also felt she tapped into the portions of this history which are generally obscurred and unspoken about – she allowed us a lens into her life, her sense of the world and how difficult it was to be caught between ‘history’ and the changes our country was undertaking.

    Even how the Todd family was revealled to support the changes Lincoln wanted himself but they were concerned about how to implement them – I liked how she kept moving point by point to disclose how each side struggled with these changes and were constantly at war with not just themselves and their own beliefs but they were facing challenges in their everyday lives. Emily for me had a quiet strength within herself – she had to fortify herself against so much even the love she had for family and the duality of loyalites she had between her marriage and her sister’s family… how she battled through all that was an impressive enough feat for me to read.

    I personally loved seeing both perspectives presented as it provides a better balanced view of History especially since even though a lot of us might think we understand the ‘other’ side of the war, none of us lived it.

    Like you, I had some notes of critism about how this novel was written – I was hoping the finished version might have polished up a bit and ironed out those wrinkles as I struggled with certain aspects of how it was presented. I also agree – there could have been some editing in regards to how we came to understand the sisters as one thing I did mention the focus was nearly taken off this being a sister-focused novel; I did suggest Lincoln should have been more of an abstract than a direct figure in the story as this wasn’t his story to be heard but rather his wife’s and her sister’s.

    The length was an issue as well – mostly though as some sections were more muddling than others,.. thankfully we both had the same takeaways and final thoughts to share…

    Lovely to visit with you!

    You’ll find my thoughts for this novel over on my blog.

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