The Last Silk Dress by Ann Rinaldi takes place during the Civil War in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Susan Dobson Chilmark, a gorgeous, intelligent, dynamic fourteen-year-old girl, who vows to devote herself to the Confederacy and the Cause, narrates the novel. Once she meets her older brother Lucien Dobson Chilmark, she learns more about the past of her family, why he left the family, and he begins to change her thoughts about the War. Due to the guidance of others and the turmoil of the War, Susan develops morally in the novel.
After a close encounter with a violent mob of Confederate supporters, Susan’s father Hugh Chilmark gives her momentous advice while confined in his office at Tredegar Iron Works, “‘Do what you think is right. Even if it hurts those around you”‘ (14). The meaning of this quote is to Susan is to follow her heart even though the outcome of her decision may hurt those she loves. Hugh wants Susan to make her own decisions and not to follow the example of others. He also realizes Susan is growing up and will face many difficult decisions throughout her lifetime, but wants her to know he will support her decisions, no matter the outcome. Susan will always remember her father this way. She falls back on Hugh’s advice several times in the novel during many difficult situations.
While sneaking out of the house, Susan meets her scandalous, rebellious, good-looking older brother Lucien. Lucien explains to Susan, “‘Slavery is evil Susan, and Southerners have talked themselves into believing it’s good”‘ (46). The meaning of this quote is Lucien is an abolitionist, and says Southerners believe slavery is a good practice. Unlike her brother, Susan is a die-hard Confederate, and believes slavery is a good practice. Susan never thought of slavery as being cruel. She does not know where slaves come from or the harsh treatment they endure on a daily bases from their masters. The significance of this event is Susan meets her brother and he begins to change her thoughts about the War. He tells her why he is not fighting, why he is not a supporter of the Cause, and begins to tell her why he left. Lucien also explains to Susan the cruelty of slavery. He tells her about how Southern slaveholders treat their slaves and the grueling slave auctions where Southerners purchase their slaves. This meeting is the beginning of Susan’s rebellion against her Southern beliefs, and a beginning to her becoming more like a “Yankee.”
Later in the novel, Susan takes care of a solider named Tom McPherson who dies because of a wound to the shoulder. During this event, Susan is struck with devastation. She witnesses death first-hand. Tom McPherson says, “‘this is a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight”‘ to Susan before he dies (76). The meaning of this quote to Susan is the war is about Southern slave owners who disagree with the Yankees, and they send out innocent men to fight to maintain their practice. Her brother Lucien also tells her this during their first meeting. She is continuing to reconsider her devotion to the Confederacy. Susan is beginning to wonder what the purpose of the war is, and is wondering why innocent men are being killed for a cruel practice. This event is the turning point for Susan’s devotion to the Confederacy to deteriorate.
In the book, Susan offers to collect dresses for a Confederate hot air balloon that will be used to spy on the Yankees. Susan tells the women, “‘I’ll collect the dress if you-all will give them up”‘ (115). The meaning of this quote is Susan is showing her support to the Confederacy. She also proves to the high-society women of Richmond that she and her family care about the War. Susan does not ask her mother if she can do this task. The significance of this event is Susan still believes in the Cause, is willing to doing anything to help, and her mother to love and appreciate her. It also shows she is unselfish because she is giving her good silk dresses for the balloon. After asking her mother for permission, she finds her mother is proud of her because she is chairing to collect and donate silk dresses for the Confederate balloon.
As Susan and Lucien continue to become closer, Susan meets Lucien’s friend Timothy Tobias Collier who is a Yankee. Lucien says, “‘and she also thinks that Yankees eat babies”‘ when Susan first meets Timothy (147). The meaning of this quote is Susan does not have to worry about what Yankees are like. They are just like Confederates, except with a different point-of-view on slavery and states’ rights. The significance of this meeting is Susan is able to see life through a Yankee’s eyes. Susan learns the War is about slavery, not states’ rights. She also allows Timothy to sketch a drawing of herself. The problem with allowing Timothy to do this, she may have her portrait published in a Yankee publication or and she is at risk for her mother discovering she is sneaking out of the house to see Lucien.
As the novel progresses, Susan faces a terrible devastation: the death of her father. Her mother tells her the terrible news bluntly, “‘your dear daddy has been killed”‘ (202). The meaning of this quote is he father is now dead and she feels no one is here for her. The significance of this event is she is heart-broken and is continuing to rethink her devotion to the Cause. She thinks back on Tom McPherson’s quote and wonders if it worth losing innocent men such as her father and Tom McPherson.
After the death of her father, Susan forges her devotion to the Cause. Timothy says, “‘I think you see this balloon as something that meant a whole lot to you because of your love for the Cause. And now it’s your way of showing that you don’t love the Cause anymore'” (261). The meaning of this quote is she no longer wants to be part of the Cause. The significance of this event is Susan changes her heart. This is Susan’s way of letting go of her past. She stands up for her own beliefs, and does not follow the example of others. This event shows Susan’s heart truly lies with the Union.
Once Timothy captures the Confederate hot air balloon, Susan is afraid Timothy is dead. She asks Lucien, “‘Is Timothy dead'” (282). The meaning of this quote is Susan cares for Timothy and is beginning to follow in love with him. The significance of this is Susan is looking inside of people. This shows she is beginning to mature and understands the meaning of having a relationship. She understands what love truly is and does not care what others think about her being with a Yankee.
Susan matures and finds herself in the novel because of the example and advice of others, and the turbulent period of the War. The significance of Susan developing is she is beginning to think for herself, she does not follow the leads of others; rather, she follows her heart. She follows her father’s advice and is able to overcome many obstacles throughout the novel. Many people living in today’s world can relate to Susan. They are struggling to find their true selves, and strive for acceptance and perfection, just like Susan.