Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lincoln: A Photobiography

Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world...enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space. (from a lecture Abraham Lincoln gave to the Springfield Library Association, February 22, 1860)
This is my one of my favorite quotes from Lincoln:A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman.

I wish I had this book to read in jr. high school, or even in high school, instead of the remarkably mediocre and boring history on Lincoln and the Civil War that I got. Freedman's book is an unusually interesting one, filled with fantastic photographs (which you might expect from a book subtitled "a photobiography"), with many fascinating insights into Lincoln the person glimpsed behind Lincoln the American symbol.

I thought I knew a fair amount about Abraham Lincoln - I grew up in a small town in northern Illinois (the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, actually), I was born on Lincoln's birthday (154 years later), and I've read a fair amount of history. But much to my surprise, I learned a great deal about both Lincoln and the Civil War from this children's book. I want to buy a copy of this book for myself and my children after I return this one to the library. I hope that it shows my kids that history - real history, not the regurgitated accounts we usually get - is really interesting.

Check out this description of the law offices of Lincoln & Herndon in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1850's:
Neither man was much for neatness, and people said that orange seeds sprouted in dusty office corners. Lincoln's favorite filing place for letters and papers was the lining of his high silk hat.
And this passage, with a memorable quote from William Herndon (Lincoln's law partner):
Lincoln liked to take Willie and Tad to the office when he worked on Sundays. Their wild behavior infuriated his partner. "The boys were absolutely unrestrained in their amusement," Herndon complained. "If they pulled down all the books from the shelves, bent the points of all the pens, overturned the spittoon, it never disturbed the serenity of their father's good nature. I have felt many and many a time that I wanted to wring the necks of those little brats and pitch them out the windows." (p. 41).
My only reservation about recommending this book for younger kids (say, less than 12 or 13) is that a couple of the photographs from the Civil War are rather disturbing - as indeed they should be, if we are to appreciate the cost in lives that was paid. But some children may not be ready to see photographs like this one, from Antietam.

Confederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road,
September 1862,taken by Alexander Gardner.
LC-DIG-cwpb-01097 DLC in the American Memory
collection at the Library of Congress.

The only other part of the book that I really didn't like was the ending. Actually, Freedman did a wonderful job describing Lincoln's death and the funeral, and followed it all up with a sampler of lesser-known quotes (which I took the top one above from), I just didn't want the story to end like this.


nessie said...

Its funny! Just today I was looking through the Newbery List and thinking to myself how I have read most of them - especially post 1940. There really are some great great pieces. I think the best of the best is The Giver though. I have read that one 30 times and it never gets old!

Bekah said...

The variety among the Newbery winners is striking. This sounds like a fascinating book. I can't wait to get to it.

Sandy D. said...

Some trivia about the author: Freedman was surprised when he won the Newbery, and noted that up to 1988, only six nonfiction books had won (and the most recent one was 32 years before his). All the nonfiction winners were biography except for "The Story of Mankind".

Kelly also says he used to stare a picture of Lincoln when he was sent to the office in grade school.

Sandy D. said...

Oops. That second paragraph should say Freedman, not Kelly. Thinking about the Trumpeter of Krakow there.