In the early 1980s, politicians got a lot of mileage out of reading--or noisily claiming to have read--Gore Vidal's biographical novel Lincoln
. Now pols wanting to lay claim to the 16th president's mythical integrity have another book to add to the shelf. In Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln
, Richard Slotkin sets out to discover the very roots of Lincoln's politics. And this American Studies professor goes for the deep roots: In the first chapter, Abe listens to his mother tell him the story of "how Moses would grow up tall, and whup the man that whupped the children, change the serpents to sticks and break the sea so the children could get over, and home to their milk and honey..." Young Abe founders when he loses his adored mother and sister to early death, and sets off on a river journey to New Orleans.
His character is formed--and his notion of America--as he travels from the North to the South. Along the way he forges an uncompromising, difficult friendship with Sephus, a slave. Slotkin handles this relationship deftly, allowing it complexity and avoiding any off-key Noble Savage notes. Here he underplays the men's first handshake, a physical acknowledgment of their uneasy equality: "Without thinking Abe put out his hand. Sephus looked at it. Then gave it a quick shake with his big dry sandy-palmed hand, turned, and went to call the men to supper." Nor does Slotkin make his hero a saint. Right afterward, "Abe was embarrassed. It was thoughtless to shake hands like that. If the others seen him, they'd give him the laugh." In the end, of course, Abe returns to the North and runs for office. In the meantime, Slotkin has given us a rough Lincoln, one who accepts and provides no easy answers. --Claire Dederer
From Kirkus Reviews
Historian (Gunfighter Nation, 1992, etc.) and novelist Slotkin (The Return of Henry Starr, 1988; The Crater, 1980) offers an impressively detailed re-creation of the early years of our myth-enshrouded 16th president. In a leisurely narrative that spans the years 181032, Slotkin portrays the ungainly Abe as both the muscular ``rail-splitter'' of popular legend and a conscientious autodidact who patiently endures his unhappy father's exploitation of his physical strength, while slowly absorbing learning but without formal schooling (``At fourteen the boy could read and write as well as a growed man needed to, and his ciphering not far behind''). We observe the Lincoln family's hopeful moves from Kentucky to Illinois to Indiana, and a colorful succession of experiences that challenge Abe's courage and wit, as well as steadily shape his character: the death of his beloved ``Mam'' from the virulent ``Milk-sick'' epidemic; a vivid account of the hunt for ``a wounded hungry mean smart angry bear''; misadventures in the ``Gin Sang'' (i.e., ginseng) trade; a revealing acquaintance with socialist Robert Owen's experiment in communal living at ``New Harmony,'' Indiana; andin the long sequence that's the real heart of the novela journey by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, featuring encounters with bibulous Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, slaveholding vigilante ``Regulators,'' and numerous defenders and enemies of the institution of slavery itself: the moral quandary that, we infer, will raise its head again as Abe begins his career in local politics, earning fame as a debater and beginning to take an interest in lively young ``Annie'' Rutledge . . . at which point the story (perhaps to be followed by a sequel?) ends. Slotkin does stack the deck rather obtrusively, contriving one scene after another that emphasizes the dawning of the idea of full equality for all men in Abe's churning mind. That objection aside, this is an absorbing, highly satisfying historical fiction: an appropriate culmination of Slotkin's obviously herculean researches, and his best yet. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.