He was a fabled statesman, orator, and defender of our nation. But what was Abraham Lincoln like as father or brother?
For young readers who prefer approaching history from a child’s-eye vantage point, two new books pull together scraps of fact to create tales about Lincoln’s family life.
Lincoln and His Boys, by children’s author Rosemary Wells, was inspired by Wells’s discovery of a 200-word fragment written by Lincoln’s son Willie about a trip he once took with his father.
Lincoln’s tenderness toward his three sons is legendary. Critics (who included some cabinet members and Lincoln’s former law partner) complained that he let them run wild, but Wells said that the more she learned, the more touched she was by Lincoln’s gentleness as a father.
That sweet sense of paternal love permeates her book. Yet the story she tells is also overshadowed by great sorrow.
“Lincoln and His Boys” is alternately narrated by Willie and his younger brother Tad. They tell stories about Willie’s trip to Chicago with his father, Lincoln’s presidential campaign, his election, the start of the Civil War, and life in the White House. Tad alone goes on to describe Willie’s death, his mother’s prolonged mourning, and the terrible toll that the war took on a grieving Lincoln.
The book finishes with the war’s end.
Other than dialogue, Wells invents almost nothing but rather cleverly stitches together reported facts. Illustrations by P.J. Lynch work with the text to highlight the mix of tenderness and pain that seemed to constitute life in the Lincoln household.
In My Brother Abe, Harry Mazer takes on a greater challenge in that so little is known about Lincoln’s early family life. Mazer uses Lincoln’s older sister Sally as narrator to flesh out the bare bones of the president’s youth: early life in Kentucky, a move to untamed land in Indiana, the death of the children’s mother, and their father’s remarriage a year later.
Mazer imagines what Sally may have felt and thought, based on what is known: that Lincoln was an eager student, that he loved his mother and his stepmother but perhaps not his father, and that life on the frontier was arduous and often even frightening.
Lincoln himself is less of a presence here but Sally’s story tells us much about the forces that shaped the man who would one day become a national hero.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.