Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott

September 2008

by Thomas Keneally, Phoenix, 202 pages.
Lincoln, A Novel

by Gore Vidal, Vintage, 657 pages.
Stealing Lincoln’s Body
by Thomas J. Craughwell, Harvard University Press, 250 pages.

Most books about history are so dry and dusty that the eyes lose focus after two or three pages before they finally shut as one loses complete consciousness.  Blame this phenomenon on the author(s) rather than on the theme: History is a fascinating subject and can come alive if the author knows what he’s doing.  This month’s review concerns three authors who know what they’re doing, in terms of writing about history, and one historical subject: Abraham Lincoln.

Being American, I simply assume I know a lot about American History.  But when I spied Thomas Keneally’s short volume – barely 200 pages – on Lincoln at B2S in Esplanade, I stopped to consider what I really knew about Lincoln (as I stopped to browse the book) and I came up with nothing much.  I knew that he was president of the United States during the Civil War in the middle of the 19th Century and I knew he was murdered shortly after the war ended by John Wilkes Booth as he attended a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington with Mrs. Lincoln.  I know his picture is on the US Five Dollar Bill.  And I know his birthday is in February since it a holiday in the United States but I don’t remember the exact day of the month (George Washington was also born in February and, while both their birthdays were holidays when I was young, since the 1970s they are celebrated together on what is now called President’s Day.)  Since Keneally’s book is short and appeared easy to read, I bought to see if I could learn a little about Lincoln while at the same time having a fun book to read.  I was not disappointed.

The length of the book turned out to be just right as to afford me a brief introduction and overview of Lincoln’s entire life.  Because the text is so short, only the major points of Lincoln’s life are conveyed and I found this short outline – and the conversational prose – to be comfortable as well as enlightening.  Yet I still got a sense of not only the major events in Lincoln’s life, but also of his personality.  Lincoln was quite depressive and Keneally is fascinated not only by this aspect of his character, but also with the effect that his depression and overall personality worked within his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln.  In her own right, Mrs. Lincoln is not only a fascinating historical figure (she was in many ways more political, and certainly from a more politically connected family, than Lincoln himself) but had her own problems with mental health as well (she was probably bi-polar).  By the end of this book I felt I had a pretty good overview on the Lincolns, on his presidency and how these things had a direct effect on the Civil War.  Indeed, one thing I did not realize and learned from this book is that Lincoln’s election itself was the cause for the southern pro-slavery states to secede from the Union.  Lincoln had been a minor representative in Congress and a local political in Illinois and was known for his views in favor of the abolition of slavery.  A finer point about his anti-slavery views that I had not realized before reading the book is that he was anti-slavery more for economic rather than humanistic reasons.  His idea for a post-slavery America called for former slaves to be returned to Africa or colonized in Central or South America.  He did not believe black and white men were equal, nor did he believe they should live together.  I also did not know, prior to reading Keneally’s book that the financing for the Civil War created the financial infrastructure of the United States that continues to remain in use today (the printing of paper money, the beginning of federal income tax, etc.).  So I learned a few interesting things as I enjoyed my introduction to Lincoln. 

In reaching the end of the book, I was even more surprised to discover that Keneally is Australian and did a lot of his research from afar and on-line (“I have spent some time in the Library of Congress … but I live a global distance from it … Thus it was a delight to find that the Library of Congress has now been able to place a substantial part of its Lincoln holdings …online,” he says in a short afterward titled “Sources.”)  In my opinion, he did this research thoroughly and produced an informative and quite readable book on Abraham Lincoln.  For a non-native reader interested in American history, the Civil War or that era, or in Lincoln himself, this book is highly recommended.

As I mentioned, Keneally’s book was a nice introduction to the topic of Lincoln and his times.  It was also a good introduction to Gore Vidal’s novel of the same name, which, as a fictional re-creation, brings the characters and events I read about in Keneally’s book to life.  I have to admit I was skeptical at first – how can any author use historical figures as fictional characters to the point of putting him or herself and the reader into these characters’ minds and thoughts and produce a book that is believable?  And, since we already know the outcome of the historical events, how can the book work overall as fiction, which, to be good, must have tension, conflict and resolution?  Vidal says himself in his Afterword, “How much of Lincoln is generally thought to be true?  How much made up?  This is an urgent question for any reader …”  He goes on to say that he presented events as accurately as possible based on the notes of those who had been there at the time.  That he is able to create believable characters that we sympathize with from these notes is testament to his skill as a writer.  By the end of the book, I believed that the dialogs I was reading between these real-life figures actually happened word-for-word the way Vidal wrote them.  It helped that I had Keneally’s book to compare the flow of Vidal’s book with – and helped that Keneally’s version was fresh in my mind.  By the third chapter I trusted Vidal’s version of the historical events; I knew he was not out to deceive but rather to allow me a more intimate, if imagined, glimpse into the complex personality of Lincoln and those around him.  As for tension and suspense, I stayed up late several nights to keep reading about the political plotting and intriguing even though I knew how it would turn out.  In Vidal’s prose, the plotter himself doesn’t know how things will turn out and I kept turning the pages to finally get to the spot where these characters would be surprised – with information I already knew.  Seems everyone took Lincoln for a dumb country hick who could be easily manipulated.  History has shown otherwise, of course, and Vidal brings this out quite nicely in his version of events.  He creates Lincoln the way I expect he really was: crafty, wily and one step ahead of those who thought they were one step ahead of him.  Letting people think they were getting over him was one of Lincoln’s best weapons in the war of politics – and Vidal’s Lincoln comes across nicely in this respect.  I was so caught up in this book that I was actually disappointed when I got to page 657 and the book ended.  Not to worry, though – Gore Vidal has done a series of historical novels in this manner (“Narratives of Empire”) which include the titles Burr, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age in addition to Lincoln.

By the time I finished these two books one would think I would have had a log cabin full of enough Lincoln to last a long time, but that’s simply not the case.  If another well written book on Lincoln comes my way, I’m bound to read it.  Ajarn Don Sandage brought me a copy of Stealing Lincoln’s Body which picks up where the other two books leave off – with Lincoln’s assassination.  This book by Thomas J. Craughwell, though, veers off from the life of Lincoln and his family into the world of counterfeiting and criminality.  In this world in 1876 a plot is hatched to steal Lincoln’s remains and hold them for ransom.  This book tells the true story of that plot and the following investigation.  Not only is the book interesting, but it is written in an entertaining and exciting way.  I learned a lot about the emerging science of embalming in the early chapters of this book and, later, about the founding of the Secret Service.  You never know where a book about Lincoln will take you and what subjects it will touch upon!

Now I see Lincoln books everywhere.  Just yesterday at Kinokuniya in Paragon I noticed a book about Lincoln and his depression.  Later while browsing at Asia Books I saw a large, hard-cover book about his assassination and the three week search for (and cornering of) John Wilkes Booth.  I haven’t bought or read those books yet, but keep your eyes glued to this column.  I’m sure a review of one or both of those may show up sooner or later …

Scott Humphries, Bangkok, 1 September 2008.