Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln

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9780805041231: Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln

Award-winning historian and novelist Richard Slotkin recreates the childhood of Abe Lincoln.

In a brilliant work of historical imagination, Abe immerses the reader in the isolating poverty and difficult circumstances that shaped Abraham Lincoln's character. Marked by his mother's horrible death and the struggle to keep reading and learning in the face of his father's fierce disapproval, Abe persevered, growing into the complicated and empathetic man who changed the course of American history. Slotkin's Abe comes of age during a dramatic flatboat journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Along the way, Abe and his companions see slavery firsthand and experience the violence-and the pleasures-of frontier settlements and the cities of Natchez and New Orleans. Numerous historical characters make appearances alongside the colorful denizens of the Mississippi: preachers and vigilantes, planters and thieves, prostitutes and lady reformers.

Transformed by what he has seen and done, Abe returns to make his final break with his father and to step out of the wilderness into New Salem-and history.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

Richard Slotkin is the Olin Professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University. He is the author of Gunfighter Nation and Regeneration Through Violence, both National Book Award finalists, and The Crater, a novel.

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