Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn has written a compelling novel about the life of Abraham Lincoln.  Rather than just reciting a series of dry facts, the story comes alive through the mechanism of a first person narrator, Abraham himself.  The book covers the period from Lincoln's life starting out as a young man to the end of his life.

Abraham had nothing with which to make his way except his own willingness to work and scrap by.  He fought as a young man to get an education, thwarted whenever possible by his father.  He makes his living however he can with various occupations moving towards the occupation of being a lawyer and a circuit judge.  His poverty means that he is not accepted in the higher circles of society and that suits him just fine, as he is uncomfortable around such people and their lives.  He goes to parties and dinners occasionally, and meets Mary Todd.  Against the objections of her family, he woos and wins her; their marriage blessed with four sons.

As he moves into politics, Lincoln finds his issue.  He rails against slavery leading to the creation of the Republican party.  When he is elected President it is not a popular move with the Southern states who promptly succeed, leaving Lincoln to start his Presidency with the biggest, most divisive war in the country's history.

Lincoln remained an outsider.  Although Mary craves social prestige, Lincoln is never comfortable in society functions.  He has to fight not only those states openly against him, but several of his generals who think they could lead the country more effectively.  One, General McClellan, is the darling of the social scene, but Lincoln is the man who can move the war forward, even as the actions he must take eat away at him.

There is little solace at home.  Mary, always headstrong, moves further and further into an alternate world with the loss of two of their sons to illness over the years.  She vainly attempts to be a social leader but is only tolerated by society and an easy prey to those who would use her station to further their own plans.  Lincoln is loyal to her even as she attempts to undermine him.

But it is the war that consumes him.  He hates the carnage, the necessity for actions that eat at his soul.  The need for generals like Grant who are killers rather than just military strategists.  The necessity of starving the Southern populace and unleashing men like Sherman on them.  The Friday shooting squads who make an example of deserters, many only boys no older than his own sons.  But he must do whatever it takes to win the war because he believes that slavery is the ultimate evil that will destroy the nation he loves.

This is a towering work.  The reader gets an intimate view of Lincoln different from the storybook tales that are told in history classes.  He emerges as a tortured man who found the backbone and willpower to push the nation forward to a new way where one man does not own another.  Of course Lincoln paid the ultimate price for his vision and his efforts to forge a country united and free of slavery.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction and for those curious about the man behind the legends.


The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson said...

As Jerome Charyn's partner, I am awed by your review. This is a different, personal, more complete picture of Lincoln the man - it is said about the novel's cover: the book completes the face. You found those qualities in the novel and more. We are in Gettysburg, PA on the book tour, speaking with students from the college, and I will be showing them your review to help them describe the novel to others. Looking at your background, I am not surprised you found so much that is in I Am Abraham, but I am still most grateful for your take. - Lenore

Tribute Books said...

What a fantastic review, Sandie! Thanks for taking such a comprehensive look at the novel, hitting on so many important points. Your enthusiasm for the book certainly shines through :)