Monday, May 23, 2011

Nonfiction Monday/Civil War Sesquicentennial Book Review: Father Abraham: Lincoln and his Sons, by Harold Holzer (Boyds Mills, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Abraham Lincoln is a source of endless fascination to Americans of all ages; more books have been written about him than any other figure in American history.  This new biography for young people by Lincoln expert Harold Holzer is a worthwhile addition to the pantheon of Lincoln books, and could be enjoyed by young people and adults alike.

The outlines of Lincoln's life are well known to most of us; this volume concentrates on Lincoln's personality as a father, the lives of his four sons, and what happened to the two sons that survived him and to their descendants, a story that most people are less familiar with.

Although Lincoln was famous for his wit and love of telling jokes, his private life was as imbued with personal sadness as his presidency was full of grief and sorrow for most U.S. citizens, a huge percentage of whom lost family members during the Civil War.  Holzer chooses to begin his story with the death of Abraham Lincoln II, known as Jack--Lincoln's only grandson.  Like three of Lincoln's own sons, Jack died tragically at a young age, succumbing to blood poisoning at the young age of sixteen.

Lincoln with his son Tad
Holzer then turns his attention to the Lincolns who came before Jack, as the authors puts it, "the story of the clan that might have become America's royal family but instead became America's cursed family--and then disappeared altogether." We learn about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln's courtship, their early married life (in which they initially lived in one room in a boarding house--quite a shock for Mary Todd who came from a wealthy family).  Their first son, Robert, was followed a few years later by Eddie, who was a sickly child and died shortly before his fourth birthday.  Death of children was common in the 19th century; nonetheless, his parents were devastated.  Lincoln cried openly, and Mary was in such despair that Abraham was forced to remind her, "Eat, Mary, for we must live."  Although they never got over his loss, Mary was soon pregnant again, giving birth to Willie and then to Thomas, quickly nicknamed Tad, when his father remarked he looked like a baby frog, or tadpole.

The book is full of colorful anecdotes about the Lincoln boys and their family life, including for example, excerpts of a charming letter little Willie wrote to a friend while on a trip with his father to Chicago in 1859.  We also learn about their schooling; Robert Lincoln failed his first exams to get into Harvard, and Tad had such difficulty sitting still and learning to read that today he would probably have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.  The Lincolns were incredibly indulgent parents, especially for their day, when children were expected to be "seen and not heard," and it is wonderful to imagine the gangly Lincoln lying on the floor with his young sons climbing all over him, as described in this book.

While their two young sons still at home with them must have been excited to arrive at the White House to live after Lincoln's election to president, (Bob being already away at school by the time Lincoln was elected), the family's years in the White House were not destined to be happy ones.  Initially Willie and Tad ran amok, getting into plenty of mischief, acquiring a menagerie of pets, interrupting cabinet meetings, drilling servants as soldiers, putting on plays in their own theatre, and hanging around the Union soldiers whose encampments surrounded the White House.  Oh yes, and sometimes there were lessons with a private tutor.  But their happiness was short-lived.  Willie, his father's favorite and the son most like Lincoln in personality and intellect, died tragically in 1862, to the great grief of both his parents, but particularly driving his mother into a deep depression.  After his brother's death, Tad was even more indulged and spoiled, but he, too, was fated to die young, just a few years after his father's assassination.  Tad's death was described by Mary as the worst of the many sorrows she bore during her life.

Robert Lincoln
The one son who lived into adulthood, Robert, became a cabinet minister under President Garfield, and ironically was present when Garfield, too, was shot by an assassin.  Holzer paints a somewhat unsympathetic picture of Robert as a man; he is perhaps best known today for having his own mother committed to an insane asylum (she was later released).  Toward the end of his mother's life, he took his daughter, Mary Todd's granddaughter, to see her, clearly trying to mend their relationship before Mary Todd's death.

I found it fascinating to read that although Robert Lincoln had three children and several grandchildren, none of the grandchildren had any offspring, and therefore Abraham Lincoln's last living descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985.

There are many excellent books for young people on Lincoln, including Candace Fleming's The Lincolns:  A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary and Russell Freedman's Newbery winning biography Abraham Lincoln:  A Photobiography, among others.   Nonetheless, this book covers different territory, with its in-depth look at the Lincolns as parents and what happened to their four sons and descendants.  It's a must-have for school and public libraries.

For movie fans:  a new movie about the Lincolns is set to be released in 2012; directed by Stephen Spielberg, it will star Daniel Day-Lewis as the president and Sally Field as Mary Todd, and will be filmed in Richmond and Petersburg.  The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's bestselling Team of Rivals.   If you live in the Richmond area, there will be roles for hundreds of local extras!  And history buffs will be sure to want to see the excellent Robert Redford film The Conspirator, which tells the story of the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of being a co-conspirator in John Wilkes Booth's plan to assassinate Lincoln.  Of course, I shouldn't forget the 3-D movie of the highly popular Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which is also slated to open in 2012!  A trailer for that epic is already available on You-tube, if you want to check it out.  I have to say that's one Lincoln book I haven't read....

What are some of your favorite books about Lincoln for young people?  Please leave a comment with the title.  
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