Abraham Lincoln is doubtless the most famous and divisive figure to have served as president of the United States of America. The tall railsplitter from Indiana who guided the Union triumphant through the Civil War attracted as many detractors as supporters, and 150 years later both sides continue to flourish. Lincoln fans highlight the abolition of slavery under his watch and his humble origins, while naysayers focus on the ruthless, statist practices he sometimes employed to defeat the Confederacy.
Russell Freedman navigates the often treacherous Lincoln river with great skill and objectivity. A noted writer of biographies for children, Lincoln: A Photobiography is certainly his masterwork, a fascinating look at a mysterious figure who showed up at just the right time to get into the history books. Neither adulatory nor overly critical, Freedman's account presents A. Lincoln the man, set against the backdrop of the political, cultural, and social environments in which he lived.
The first chapter is a brief sketch of Lincoln's character called "The Mysterious Mr. Lincoln." Freedman describes a man comfortable in his own skin yet uncomfortable in the world, a rowdy jokester haunted by bouts of deep depression, a common man possessing uncommon gifts and abilities that were never learned or taught, a self-deprecating storyteller who was nevertheless consumed with ambition and a desire to succeed. In short, a gangly, walking paradox.
We see the familiar scenes history has preserved: Lincoln reading while plowing, wrestling with young frontier bucks, flatboating down the Mississippi River, debating the small but bellicose Stephen Douglas, welcoming Frederick Douglass into the White House, standing alone and sad at Gettysburg, etc. But we also get glimpses seldom remembered, such as the fact that many found his sense of humor tasteless, his high-pitched voice laughable, and his anti-slavery sentiments disingenous.
There's an excellent balance between personal portrait and big-picture contextualization. We read much about Lincoln, but we also read about Mary Todd and his sons, his business partners, his presidential cabinet, Ulysses S. Grant, and many others. Better still, we actually see Lincoln and the world he lived in. As a photobiography, this book contains dozens of photographs, prints, and newspaper clips taken during Lincoln's lifetime.
Lincoln: A Photobiography really brings history to life for children as well as adults. Freedman's writing is careful and engaging, telling the story of a man rather than simply telling us about him. Reflecting Lincoln's own love of anecdote, he includes several about the 16th president, some funny, some sad, and some thought-provoking. The text pairs perfectly with the images (which are all in black and white), drawing even reluctant historians into the narrative.
There's no real critical analysis here. Freedmans' book is for younger readers, after all, and while it is never condescending, it necessarily avoids some of the deeper questions (though the author alludes to many). At the end you'll find a selection of quotes by Lincoln which adults and children would benefit from discussing (a couple are eyebrow-raising), as well as a list of historical sites associated with Lincoln. A modern classic, Freedman's book well deserved the 1988 Newbery Medal.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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