Wednesday, April 6, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Friend of Mr. Lincoln by Stephen Harrigan

There are so many books—fiction and nonfiction—about Abraham Lincoln, that I think it would be daunting for an author to add another novel to the pile. However, author Stephen Harrigan is up to the task.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln show us Abraham Lincoln as a young man, brimming over with ambition, brilliant, witty, sometimes cruel, and with an iron-clad code of ethics which seemed to privilege "the Law" over what is morally right and to allow him an-end-justifies-the-means pragmatism when it comes to his own political career. It’s a complex and somewhat unsettling portrait of the man I am accustomed to viewing as great and noble, but I suppose everyone is young once.

This Lincoln is introduced to us from the viewpoint of the fictional poet Cage Weatherby. Also a young man at the start of his career, Cage is not a political man, but he is drawn to politicians, and there are many of those in Springfield, Illinois in the mid 1800s. Cage has met Lincoln before, during the Black Hawk War, when Cage’s troop was nearly massacred by Black Hawk’s men and Lincoln and a few other soldiers arrived to help bury the dead. The two men remember one another when they meet again, a few years later, in Springfield. Lincoln is a politician who dabbles in poetry and Cage is a poet who dabbles in politics, and the two men hit it off.

Cage is calm, thoughtful, sensitive to the needs of others, and loyal to his friends. He is also anti-slavery and evolves into an abolitionist. Lincoln is outgoing and friendly but with periodic bursts of depression that Cage must learn how to navigate. Both men are at a stage in their lives when they are interested in marrying and settling down, but they go about it differently. Cage falls in love with a woman who won’t marry him, so he settles for less–perhaps because he, too, is afraid of the commitment. Lincoln bounces from failed courtship to failed courtship, seeming unsure of what he wants or how to accommodate himself to society women.

Lincoln is a lawyer, a circuit rider, and a member of the state legislature, and Cage is a somewhat reluctant but reasonably successful business man and a determined poet. They move in the same circles and admire one another greatly, but the burden of the friendship seems to fall on Cage. Lincoln is high maintenance.

The period details and political maneuverings are fascinating. Lincoln’s somewhat ambiguous ethics and Cage’s striving to understand his friend with minimal judging make this a compelling story. It becomes even more complicated when Mary Todd enters the picture. Gage admires them both, but believes they are wrong for each other. It turns out Gage doesn’t have as much influence over his friend as he thought.

This book is wonderfully written and difficult to put down. Even if you think you’ve had enough of Lincoln and/or the Civil War, you should give this one a try.

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