Unlike Rosemary Well's Lincoln and His Boys which takes documented historical events and imagines them through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln's young sons, My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story by Harry Mazer takes the few known facts about the childhood of Sally and Abe Lincoln and creates a rich and compelling story from them. Little is known of Sarah, or Sally as she was called, beyond her birth date, marriage date and the date two years later when she died at age twenty-one in childbirth. There is a quote in Candace Fleming's The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary Lincoln that mentions how Sally begged her Pa to let Abe, two years her junior, but just as smart and always as tall or taller, come to school with her and how she cried until he ceded. And, while this doesn't happen exactly the same way in Mazer's book, Sally's love of Abe and desire to share with him is evident from the first sentence of the book when she talks of being five and teaching three year old Abe his letters in the dirt.
In Sally, Mazer has written a strong willed, emotionally conflicted narrator. The life of the Lincolns' is never easy. They are forced to leave Knob Creek, Kentucky when the government informs them and many of their neighbors that they are not the proper owners of their land. Tom Linclon, a carpenter by trade, heads off to what will become the state of Indiana with only his horse to scout out new land. Soon the family is packing their meagre belongings on their backs and heading to their new home in the densely forested territory of Pigeon Creek. Of course I was reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her story as I read. The hardships and subsistence living is similar. However, Mazer endows his characters with more emotional depth and complexity than I remember from Wilder's books. Sally is forever being accused of having a loose tongue and is often standing up for Abe, who is the lightening rod of his father's anger. However, she always has her mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, to look up to. Much like Ma Ingalls, Nancy is gracious, selfless and subservient. As the house in Pigeon Creek is built by Lincoln and for one day his neighbors, wonderfully described in the chapter, "Dreaming About Our Cabin," Sally notices how her mother's requests go ignored. Finally, she decides that she and Sally will build a temporary chimney so they can make use of the stone fireplace for cooking without being smoked out of their home. Tom arrives home from a day's work outdoors and has nothing but criticism for their work until Sally points out that there is no more smoke in the cabin. One lingering sadness for Sally is the fact that, while she and her mother have picked out a large, flat stone to serve as their doorstep, her mother never lives to see it put in place by Tom.
The story follows the Lincoln's as they settle in, send the children to school and have relatives from Kentucky join them. Abe's love of learning and his desire to please his father remain a part of the story, but the focus is always Sally's struggle to be more like her mother and less aware of the unfairness of her situation, especially after her mother dies and she assumes all of the household responsibilities at the age of eleven. However, this is a difficult task for her and she remains stubborn throughout the book. A year after her mother's death, Tom Lincoln decides to resume a friendship with Sarah Bush Johhnston, Nancy Hanks Lincoln's childhood friend in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She is now a widow with three children and considerable debt. After an exchange of letters, Tom decides to go to her, propose and return with a wife. He tells Sally and Abe he should be gone no more than nine days and leaves them a pig carcass. Although it is winter and snowing, neither father nor children seem too concerned at parting. This is no surprise as the children were remarkably self-sufficient before their mother's death and even more so after. And, while Lincoln is gone for almost three weeks and the pig carcass is stolen by a bear shortly after he departs, the children survive. They still are attending school and all the neighbors seem to know of their situation and send food for them. Mazer even introduces the Aaron Grigsby, the man Sarah Lincoln married when she was nineteen, six years after this book ends. Grigsby, a bit older and more independent, shares the excess of his hunting with them and they make it on their own, a lot dirtier and a little thinner than when their father left.
The last quarter of the book, the arrival of Sarah Bush Johnston and her children, Elizabeth, Matilda and John, finds Sally struggling to accept the changes in her life and the woman her father insists she call Mama. When Sarah gives Abe books, he takes to her immediately. It is known that, while he did not attend his father's funeral, he cared for his step-mother in her old age and considered her as much a mother to him as Nancy Hanks had been. Sally takes longer to warm to Sarah and is quick to notice the things her father does for her and her children that he never did for her mother. The book ends with Sally refusing to join her father and siblings on a wagon ride celebrating the birthdays of Elizabeth and Matilda, noting, "We hadn't never had a festive time for me and Abe, nor for Mama, neither." She stays behind with Sarah, who is cooking a big meal for the family. Being a perceptive and loving woman, despite Sally's pushing her away constantly, she takes her in her arms and asks her to talk of her mother and holds her while she cries for her.
I think children will definitely be drawn to the rugged existence the Lincoln's lived, as well as the antics of Abe and the struggles of his sister. Mazer's descriptions of Sally feel genuine and her narrative voice is strong. I think this book will take it's place on the shelf along with Gary Paulsen's "Tuckett" books and Laura Ingalls Wilder's life story.