Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review: "Courting Mr. Lincoln" by Louis Bayard

Having lived not too far from his memorial for more than 30 years, Abraham Lincoln is definitely one former president I think of fairly often. Daniel Day-Lewis' masterful, Academy Award-winning portrayal (in Lincoln) also lives in my mind—so much so that I was hoping Steven Spielberg might've changed history and let him survive that fateful night at Ford's Theater.

I've even envisioned him as a vampire hunter.

All this to say, as much as I feel like Mr. Lincoln is a familiar historical figure, I wasn't prepared for the mesmerizing poignancy and humor of a younger Lincoln in Louis Bayard's terrific new book, Courting Mr. Lincoln. And the former president himself wasn't the only one to get a spin different than the way he has usually been portrayed—almost all I've heard of Mary Todd Lincoln chronicles her mercurial nature and her paralyzing grief, but in Bayard's hands she is a fascinating character.

Courting Mr. Lincoln opens with a young Mary Todd arriving in Springfield, Illinois in 1840, where she is to live with her married elder sister until she finds a suitable husband. But Mary is an intelligent young woman with a quick tongue and a wicked sense of humor, qualities not prized in women of that time. She also has a tremendous knowledge of politics, which she isn't afraid to demonstrate in conversation, and she knows it will be difficult to find a man who is her intellectual equal.

She first thinks she has found it in shopkeeper Joshua Speed, a handsome and charming young man more than willing to hold up his end of a conversation. She certainly knows it won't be Speed's roommate, Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer and local politician who has never quite scrubbed the "country" off of him. Tall, gangly, and awkward, he'd rather blend into the background then stand out, but his gift of oratory wins him more than a few fans. But little by little, Mary finds herself surprisingly charmed by this man, whose awkwardness belies his quick wit and kind heart.

While those around Lincoln know he needs a suitable spouse if he is ever to run for higher political office, it is difficult to permeate his relationship with Speed, who literally made Lincoln the man he is, teaching him to dress and carry himself properly, showing him how to dance and handle himself in social situations. The friendship between Speed and Lincoln is closer than nearly any bond, and neither is sure they want to end it for the sake of propriety or Lincoln's ambitions.

This is a fascinating, moving book about friendship, family, social obligations, ambition, and love. Each of these is difficult to navigate now, much less in the 1840s, and Courting Mr. Lincoln demonstrates the challenges that Mary, Speed, and Lincoln each faced in choosing between what was expected of them and what they wanted for themselves. Reading this book, you can only wonder how much Lincoln truly wanted to be president, and how much he did what others wanted of him instead.

The book's narration alternates between the three characters, and is at turns funny, poignant, and utterly compelling. Even though I knew inevitably what would happen, I still wondered how Bayard would get his characters to their ultimate destination, or, much like I wished of Spielberg, whether he'd alter the course of history for the sake of the story. (I don't know which would have made me love the book more, honestly.)

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but I really loved this book. It's a special story that made these characters seem vivid and almost modern even against the backdrop of the 1840s. I'd love to see this story made into a movie, if for no other reason than I'm sad the book has ended.

Bayard is a tremendously talented storyteller. It's hard to believe I've never read any of his other books, but I'm going to need to remedy that!!

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

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