Readers often suggest books I should write. My standard reply is, “Well, arranged marriages can work nicely for some folks, but I have to fall in love on my own.”
When I’m almost finished with a novel, I start dating again. I read promiscuously and watch a lot of documentaries on the History Channel and PBS and Smithsonian — the literary equivalent of hanging around in a bar.
If there’s a spark, I begin to accumulate a library on the topic and see if it can sustain my interest. Often the story just doesn’t catch fire for me. A few years ago, I had this great idea for a book about Edgar Allan Poe, but after reading a lot of his letters, I gave up on him. Poe’s life was awful and I felt sorry for him, but he whined about being broke all the time. I kept thinking, Dude. Get a day job.
So I bailed on that one.
After finishing Doc, I seriously considered a story about the courtship and early marriage of Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd. What drew such an odd couple together? How did that marriage work? After a few biographies, I realized I didn’t like either of them.
“I’d like to read that novel,” I told my husband, “but someone else is going to have to write it.”
Well, last night I finished Stephen Harrigan’s wonderful new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. THAT is the novel I hoped someone else would write and he’s done a far better job of telling their story than I would have. I am a crabby, picky, impatient reader, but I admired every beautifully crafted page.
Like Doc, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is firmly rooted in fact and seeks to provide a reliable portrait of famous people before they were anybody special. The moral center of the story is a poet named Cage Weatherby, one of the few fictional figures in the novel. Cage Weatherby doesn’t just stand around admiring Lincoln or being disappointed by him. He’s got his own life and for a time, he seems to be the one among a group of friends who’ll be remembered in generations to come. Bonus: when descriptions of the writing process crop up, they are as accurate and engaging as the history.
Thousands of books have been written about Lincoln, who became a secular saint after his death. Mr. Harrigan gives us a Lincoln who was a vote-grubbing politician in the 1830s and 40s. It was a time much like our own, when character assassination, vicious ridicule, and shameless lies were accepted as part of a politician’s job.
Lincoln didn’t just step over the line occasionally, he pole-vaulted over it now and then. Despite his willingness to be cruelly clever at others’ expense, Lincoln needed to believe himself an honorable man. It was not always an easy conceit to sustain and Mr. Harrigan allows us to see the moments when Lincoln proves to be a weaselly lawyer who’ll say anything necessary to win a case or to succeed in politics.
Ultimately, despite years of friendship, Cage Weatherby must decide if he can remain friends with a man who privately claims to be anti-slavery but who takes a case that will return a family of fugitives to a slave master if Lincoln wins in court. This is subtly and splendidly done, with no easy answers provided.
This is the first of Mr. Harrigan’s novels that I have stumbled upon, but I plan to read all his stuff and anything else he writes from now on.