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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

While The Last Silk Dress primarily examines the effects of the Civil War on the inhabitants of Richmond, Virginia, most specifically on Susan Chilmark and her family, like Rinaldi's But in the Fall I'm Leaving, it also centers on a mystery. Throughout the novel, Susan's mother—a half-crazed woman who falls...

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While The Last Silk Dress primarily examines the effects of the Civil War on the inhabitants of Richmond, Virginia, most specifically on Susan Chilmark and her family, like Rinaldi's But in the Fall I'm Leaving, it also centers on a mystery. Throughout the novel, Susan's mother—a half-crazed woman who falls into screaming rages—torments her only daughter by calling her a "Yankee brat." Susan, a loyal Confederate daughter, passes the insult off as madness and selflessly gives to the cause. She takes her best white silk dress that her father bought in New York and cuts it up so that it can be used for a Confederate flag. Susan nurses sick soldiers, and she collects silk dresses from Richmond women so that a Confederate balloon can be made.

Yet, after Susan falls in love with a "Yankee" art correspondent, who sketches for Harper's a picture of Susan as the Southern belle, the young girl learns the truth of her family: her own Yankee heritage. Susan's confrontation with family skeletons coincides with her growing awareness of Southern corruption. Forced to face the fact that her beloved father slept with a black servant, and her mother, in kind, bedded down with a Yankee, Susan begins to understand the horrors of slavery; and while she weeps over the boys who drag their bodies back to war-torn Richmond, she makes a decision about her own loyalties. She risks her life to free her beloved balloon from military use by the Confederate army. As she does so, the reader of this wildly romantic and dramatic novel is asked to consider these serious issues: When is it right to defy the laws of the land?; What is the nature of real love?; What are the consequences of slavery; and How does the institution "enslave" both slave and master?

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