Abe: A Novel about Abraham Lincoln's Youth

Richard Slotkin, Author John MacRae Books $27.5 (478p) ISBN 978-0-8050-4123-1
Slotkin's young Abe Lincoln may owe something to Twain's Huck Finn and his trip down the great Mississippi, but it owes far more to Slotkin's own fine wit and inventiveness as well as years of research into American frontier life. Novels about revered historical figures are notoriously difficult to bring to life, being chained to plausibility and to a story line already too well known. Slotkin's Lincoln, traced from a toddler of two to a muscular 23 embarking on his first campaign for public office, is funny, robust, a rough and tumble lad of the frontier who longs to live on a greater stage--an idea planted in him by a few treasured books. Abe grows up among an uneducated breed of frontiersmen who abhor slavery and the chicanery of civilized law, and migrate from Kentucky to Indiana and on into the West trying to escape them. Pap Lincoln has more than a little in common with Pap Finn, and like Twain, Slotkin combines elements of frontier humor, folklore and philosophizing, along with a very contemporary frankness about the everyday urges and needs of future presidents. His is a Lincoln as good with his fists as with his wits, who peddles sang-root elixir down the Mississippi and loses his innocence in a Natchez fancy house. Traveling downriver, Abe meets ""the greatest actor of the English-speaking world,"" Junius Brutus Booth, and visits the plantation of Joseph Davis, who laments the absence of his soldier brother Jefferson. The wonder of it is, none of this seems mawkish, implausible or in any way salacious. ""Do you know that any man that larns to make sense when he talks can go as far as he likes in this country?"" Abe tells a friend at age 14, speaking with the conviction a frontier boy would have to feel to grow into the man who would later become a president. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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