As I was reading Rosemary Wells' compelling new book Lincoln's Boys, a fact based snapshot of the Lincoln family's life over the course of six years and narrated by Willie and Tad Lincoln, I found myself wanting to know more about the interesting people who were Abraham and Mary as well as the fates of the family. With February 12, 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, I was not at a loss for reading material. Happily for me, for all of us, I found answers to all of my questions and much much more in Candace Fleming's amazing book, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary which was published in the fall of 2008.
The word "scrapbook" in the title can be misleading. Here, it is used in the old fashioned sense, the pages of the book looking more like the sheets from a newspaper of the time than what we think of as a scrapbook toady. To view one of the pages click here. This is the same format Fleming used with great success in her other books, Ben Franklin's Almanac and Our Eleanor. In her introduction, in which she details her childhood growing up in Illinois, the land of Lincoln, playing on and around historical sites and even sleeping in a bedroom where Lincoln once slept, Fleming includes a quote from a friend of the Lincoln's. Speaking of Abraham and Mary the friend said, "they were like two pine trees that had grown so close their roots were forever intertwined." Thus, her editor's suggestion that she write a biography of Lincoln becomes one on the Lincolns, following the two from their births to their deaths.
I'll admit, the string of tragedies, loss after loss, that his family suffered are what intrigues me, as an adult reader. Once I began reading The Lincolns, I quickly became equally, if not more fascinated by the quantity and quality of information available on the two subjects, as detailed in the extensive endnotes Fleming provides. It seems that Lincoln is the most written about president and, in the 21st century when memoirs clog the shelves of bookstores, I was surprised to learn how many people took up the pen to write about their experiences and relationships with the Lincolns, from the sister of Tad and Willie's White House friends, to Mary Lincoln's dressmaker and Abraham Lincoln's private secretary who conducted extensive interviews with those who knew him. This provides for an abundance of quotes that make the writing even more engaging than it already is. There are also photographs, illustrations, political cartoons, legal documents, maps and personal items, such as Mary's recipe for white cake. Fleming spent five years researching this book and it clearly shows.
The visual nature of this book will draw readers in instantly. The fact that the various snippets of text, usually no more than a few paragraphs, have eye-catching headlines further serves to engage readers and hold their attention. Fleming manages to presents a multitude of details and information while maintaining an intimate feel to the book at all times. While I am a person who enjoys reading historical fiction, I am rarely tempted to learn more about what I am reading by picking up a work of non-fiction. But, when I picked up Rosemary Wells' book and was led to Candace Fleming's, I couldn't put either of them down and actually considered reading an adult biography of one of both of the Lincolns. However, that impulse is just that - I have already picked up two more works of historical fiction for young adults on Abe and Mary, one of which I learned of from the suggested reading section in Fleming's masterful biography that is engaging to young and old alike.
In case you need a little more nudging to pick up this book, here are a few interesting tidbits I learned:
Lincoln was the first president to have his likeness put on a coin.
Mary was the first wife to be referred to as "First Lady." Mary had a unique upbringing. She was encouraged to learn about and have opinions on politics. She was raised with slaves but personally handed out food and clothing to Washington DC's ex-slaves.