Book Review: I Am Abraham Lincoln

I Am Abraham Lincoln, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

It is perhaps unfair to judge a book clearly aimed at children by the standards of someone who has read dozens of books about Abraham Lincoln [1].  Yet we come into a book with our experience and background, and that is true for me even when I am reading books for kids.  What obligation do we have to tell children the truth, if not all of the gory details than at least enough for children to investigate for themselves?  Is it important to see Lincoln’s struggle with melancholy, what the current age would view as depression, in light of his own sorrows as well as the crushing burden of the Civil War?  Is it important to note that the Civil war was not ended in a passive or negotiated sense but by the brutal exercise of coercion against a wicked and evil rebellion?  Is it important to think about Lincoln’s death and the relationship between his martyrdom and its resonance with Judeo-Christian scripture?  I think the answer is yes to these questions, and yet while the author is long on jokes about the penny, these are not issues the author addresses at all, and this book is far the worse for it.

For the most part, this book tells a very straightforward narrative of the subject’s life, beginning with his life in the frontier and its absence of formal schooling and the way that he was considered lazy for preferring reading to work, something a lot of children (and some adults) will be able to identify with.  The author talks about Lincoln’s trip where he saw enslaved blacks being shipped down the river, and his struggle against the bullies of New Salem as a new arrival, but while the author talks about lost elections, there are huge gaps in the story of Lincoln’s life that are not discussed.  His friendship and partnership with Hearndon, his time as a member of the House of Representatives, his work as a political hack for the Whigs, his legal career, his awkward courtships and family life, none of this is covered at all.  Three times Lincoln jokes about being on the penny, but the author cannot bother to cover his long career of political speeches, the fact that he is the only president with a patent, his time in the Black Hawk War, his service on the eighth circuit taking dramatic and important legal cases, or anything else of that nature.

And it is these gaps that make this book somewhat troublesome.  A man who struggled thoughtfully with racism and its existence in the United States and its repercussions and consequences is viewed as a plaster saint of contemporary racial views.  A man who struggled with faith does not have the biblical heritage of his life and death examined at all here.  A man who struggled with intimacy and relationships and serious mental health issues is viewed as a cheery person without a care at all, even in the face of the Civil War.  It is not only that the author chooses to leave out aspects of a complicated but obviously heroic life, but that the author misrepresents Abraham Lincoln in a way that fails to inspire people as well as it could.  If children knew the struggle with poverty as a child, the use of education as a way out of that poverty to a comfortable lifestyle as an adult, and his own wrestling with questions of faith and justice and mental health, many more people could be inspired by Lincoln’s life rather than simply seeing him as the face on the penny.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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