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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful First-Person Narrative, February 11, 2014
This review is from: I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War (Kindle Edition)
In I Am Abraham, Jerome Charyn undertakes the formidable task of presenting the life of Abraham Lincoln, as seen through his letters, speeches, and other historical sources. As Charyn indicates in his Author's Note, the novel is not a biography, but a work of historical fiction: the author has reconstructed major events and players in Lincoln's life, with the poetic licence to add fictional characters when needed. The book as a whole has the feel of a picaresque novel with its expansive cast of characters as it explores Lincoln's journey through life to its inexorably tragic end. Charyn succeeds in creating a first-person narrative that feels honest and intimate.

Charyn does a masterful job in presenting the complexities of Lincoln's character. He is a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination who wins the convention and attains the presidency. Lincoln becomes president at a time when several southern states have formed the Confederacy, and in the ensuing civil war he must come to terms with the fact that he is sending young men by the thousands to die. He must also cope with his melancholia, the 'blue unholies" that plague him throughout his life, at times incapacitating him, as well as the increasingly erratic behavior of his wife after the death of their son Willie. He is the president of a nation divided by war, but he is also a compassionate family man, often seen carrying his young son Tad on his shoulders, and a husband who must face the prospect of placing his wife in an insane asylum. (Mary in fact spent four months in an asylum following the assassination of her husband before being consigned to the care of her sister Elizabeth.)

Historians, for the most part, have not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln, but Charyn recognizes the complexity of her character. She is ridiculed by the press for her plainness, but excoriated when she spends money to improve her wardrobe and to refurbish the White House, which has essentially gone to ruin under Buchanan. She recognizes that her husband is regarded as incompetent by many of the men who surround him, including General McLellan, who commands the loyalty of the Union troops, but her support for her husband remains steadfast. She is surrounded by flatterers and charlatans, and often succumbs to their influence. And because she has no real role in politics, she smothers her oldest son Robert, forcing him into a profession in which he has no interest. She is a woman born in the wrong century: better educated and more intelligent than many of the men who surround her (as Charyn comments in his Author's Note), but relegated to the background because she is female. She is also representative of the deep divisions and contradictions of the times: Mary Todd is from a wealthy family of slave-owners in Kentucky, yet her closest confidante is a former slave. Mrs. Keckley becomes her constant companion, as well as her dressmaker. Mary must also deal with the fact that many of her relatives in Kentucky have joined the Confederate army.

It is important to note that the subtitle of I Am Abraham is "A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War". More than 600,000 soldiers were killed in the American Civil War, and these deaths represented ten percent of northern males aged 20-45 and thirty percent of southern males aged 18-40. The symbolism of the novel readily underlines the horrors of the war: the ditches filled with amputated limbs (one in thirteen veterans suffered amputations); the sounds of the Friday firing squads killing Union deserters (many of whom Lincoln would have preferred to pardon); the starved Confederate soldiers outfitted with cardboard shoes in winter; and the carnage of the battlefields littered by bodies and dead horses. As Lincoln and Tad tour the ruins of Richmond, which has been burned almost to the ground by fires set by the retreating Confederate army, Lincoln recognizes that there are no real winners in this battle. He looks ahead to the Reconstruction that he hopes will mend the country's wounds, but sadly it will be a Reconstruction he will not live to undertake.

I Am Abraham will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and of the oral storytelling tradition at which Lincoln himself excelled.

It is an exuberant novel that speaks equally of life and death, hope and sorrow.
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