Review Detail

Young Adult Nonfiction 118
Honestly Abe
Overall rating 
 
4.5
Writing Style 
 
4.0
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable) 
 
5.0
A highly accessible biographical overview of (arguably) the most renowned and history-altering of all the United States presidents. The book tracks and examines the life of Abraham Lincoln—from his unremarkable birth and monetarily/intellectually impoverished upbringing, to his time as an indentured laborer—on to his courtship of Mary Todd and budding legal endeavors… and ultimately, to his political ascension and assassination.

Kudos to Teri Kanefield for such an engaging non-fiction format. The regularly interspersed images and paragraphs worth of footnote asides really helped break up the information and stave off reading fatigue. It also helped put certain concepts in proper context. And beyond mere dates and factoids, there is a concerted effort to convey Lincoln’s motivations and personality. It presents the environment and evolution of his value system, the reasoning behind his divergence from his immediate family’s political leanings, his ongoing struggles with melancholy (i.e. depression), and the terrible personal losses he endured. And Kanefield manages to do so without the use of manipulative or bias word choices.

Note: While some facts I simply had never learned during my inadequate U.S. history education, there are some things that felt more like surprising (yet intriguing) points of conjecture. For example: The book dwells often on how odd in physical appearance and proportion Abraham Lincoln happened to be. And it strongly implies that Lincoln was a sure political bet only to his wife, Mary—who seemed determined, even before their courtship, that she would be married to a U.S. President. Indeed, the book suggests Lincoln may not have persisted in his discouraging political career had Mary not nagged (er…coaxed?) him into it.

There was far more information on Mary Todd, and the sometimes contentious marriage dynamic between her and Abe, than I’d ever before encountered. This reader had never realized that the first lady's family was largely pro-confederacy. And as a result, "Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her home state and land of her birth. Northerners suspected her of being disloyal to the Union because she had close relatives in the Confederate army." Her life seems nearly as befitting a biography as her husband’s.

Regarding the aftermath of Lincoln’s death, the book postulates: "Booth was stunned by how the assassination was portrayed in the press. He had spent so much time among like-minded people who hated Lincoln, and he had read so many newspaper accounts denouncing Lincoln as a tyrant bent on destroying the Constitution and personal liberty, that he expected to be hailed as a hero. Instead ... he was being hunted down like a beast, while Lincoln was held up ... as a martyred saint."
While it's fascinating to think that the echo chamber John Wilkes Booth lived in led him to believe he'd be publicly lauded for murdering Lincoln... I just wonder how they know this. Letters? There doesn’t appear to be a source for this cited.

“Confederates called Lincoln a dictator and fanatic who must be stopped by any means, including 'revolution or private assassination.’”

I appreciate that this book really explores how much criticism Lincoln received in his day--both from slave owners, who were enraged at how much he was pushing for change--and from his fellow abolitionists, who didn't think he was doing enough. History often shows that the most effective world-changers were those who made incremental alterations on their way to an ultimate goal, rather than imposing an abrupt all-or-nothing approach. But there have been, and always will be, those who disparage a moderated strategy.

"I hope to stand firm enough to not go backward, and yet not go forward fast enough to wreck the country's cause." --Abraham Lincoln

Yet, some in recent years have chosen to interpret the approaches and motivations of many historical figures through an inflexible modern-day lens of moral superiority—resulting in cynicism and even vilification toward figures who are entirely too dead to defend themselves. This book, however, gives no quarter to the dying trend of portraying Lincoln as a mere political opportunist.
-"Under Cox's theory of Lincoln, which has gained wide acceptance among scholars, Lincoln was a practical statesman and not an idealist. At each stage he was willing to settle for what he could accomplish, while remaining alert for opportunities to achieve his long-desired objective of liberty and justice for all."

-"As another historian explained, Lincoln "always sought the meeting point between what was right in theory and what could be achieved in practice." Lincoln saw no point in putting forward plans or proposals that couldn't possibly win popular support."

Ultimately, this was an enlightening overview of an indisputably influential life. By the end, readers will feel as though they better know Lincoln the man, rather than simply knowing a few more things about Lincoln the historical figure.
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