Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era: The Man And His Times, by K.M. Kostyal
To be sure, among the many thousands of books about Abraham Lincoln , this is one of the more inessential ones. That is not to say that the book is bad, but rather that it covers very familiar ground. The book is about 200 pages long, filled with pictures and sidebars, and seeks to give the context of Abraham Lincoln’s life and not only a biographical work. As might be expected, the book is heavily biased towards the Civil War era itself. Perhaps more surprising, the relatively few books this book contains are historical maps presented without legend or very much in explanation. It is somewhat puzzling that a book published by National Geographic should have as its weakest element the geography of the Civil War or of Abraham Lincoln’s life, but there it is. As someone who reads a great many books, I find often that the books I read and review are contrary to my own expectations. Meeting my expectations does not appear to be high on the list of authors and publishers I deal with.
In terms of its contents, this book offers fairly straightforward contents in a conventional format. The book is chronologically organized from Lincoln’s birth to his funeral, more or less, although there are times where the chronological thread of the book is broken slightly, especially with regards to Mary Todd Lincoln. For example, the author engages in a bit of foreshadowing when talking about Mary’s spendthrift ways and the way she engaged in what a later generation would call “retail therapy,” or when a discussion of a serious injury in a carriage accident is related to the possibility of later mental illness as a result of serious head trauma, or when her irregular behavior after Abraham Lincoln’s death is discussed before the final journey of Lincoln’s body back to Springfield. These breaks in the flow of continuity appear to be the result, though, of the author’s focus on the narrative flow, and the preference of making the last word about Abraham Lincoln rather than a strictly chronological one. The fact that the author managed to snag noted Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for a short foreword means that the author was doing something right in crafting this work. Name recognition counts for something, at least.
To be sure, there was a lot about this book I found to be missing. For one, I expected a lot more maps from a book published by the National Geographic. Among the maps that would have supported the text quite admirably would have been: a map of the travels of Lincoln’s family during childhood, a map showing the “spot” of the beginning of the Mexican-American War, a map showing the travels of Lincoln during his 1858 Senate campaign as well as on the way to Washington DC after being elected president, and even a map of his travels while president. All of these would have helped to have given some geographical context to the author’s discussions. Likewise, I would have liked to have read much more about the war on the seas, or of the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, but this book contained precious little of that. We review, however, the books that exist and not the books we would have preferred, and in that light, this book is certainly competently written and the sort of book that can be enjoyed. This book won’t change your life, but it is not a waste of time either. It treads familiar ground but does so without being tiresome or off-putting, and there is something to be said for that.
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