Tag Archives: civil war

Book Review: Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

If  emotive storytelling appeals to you, then hurry and place Courting Mr. Lincoln, a historical novel by Louis Bayard, in your Amazon cart.

The “courting” in this tale is twofold: set in the early 1840s, it tells how Joshua Speed educates Lincoln in society’s ways so he can actually court Mary Todd, who is in Springfield, Illinois visiting her sister with marriage on her mind. Young, frontier-rough Abe Lincoln is a boarder in Joshua Speed’s rooms above Speed’s general store. The two men share a bed, in fact, something not unusual at that time.

They also share a deep friendship, a love for each other, and a great respect for virtues of fidelity and honesty. Those characteristics cause Abe the most pain, when he comes to realize that his toast to “bachelorhood” is taken by Speed as an oath:

“I thought we made a vow,” (Speed) said. “Never again to think of marrying, do you remember? Because we couldn’t be satisfied with anybody who’d be blockhead enough to have us. We made a toast to bachelorhood. To brotherhood. Do you recall?”

Lincoln agonizes over breaking this “vow,” such as it is, without adequately taking into account Speed’s feelings, which have grown very deep for this unusual blossoming politician who already seems to have a great destiny before him. Some historians speculate if this relationship was more than friendship.

Both men end up leaving each other for marriage. Speed eventually marries Fanny Henning after returning to his native Louisville, Kentucky, and Lincoln weds Mary Todd, but not without first breaking their engagement, as he sorts out, in this telling, if he’s worthy of her and whether he’s been unfaithful to his friend and that “oath” they made to each other.

The story is told from two alternating points of view, both in third-person: Joshua’s and Mary’s. Mary Todd has received some shabby treatment over the years, with an emphasis on her involuntary commitment to a mental institution years after her husband’s death, so it was refreshing to read this sympathetic take on her character. Bayard paints a portrait of a wildly intelligent woman who was Lincoln’s equal intellectually, perhaps the main reason he was attracted to her. Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 6.58.44 AM

Louis Bayard is a master at historical fiction, using details about dress, etiquette, speech, and more to set you smack-dab in the time he’s placed his stories. In Courting Mr. Lincoln you can smell the mud-clogged streets of 1840 Springfield, Illinois, hear the buzz of horse flies when windows are left open in warm weather, see the perspiring faces of party-goers crammed into small rooms with blazing hearths. You’ll want to read more of his oeuvres after this well-done novel, and perhaps more history of Lincoln, too. I’ve already ordered the book of letters from Lincoln to Speed that Bayard mentions in his acknowledgments.

One final note: If you go to Amazon to order this book, you’ll see it’s highly ranked in “LGBT” literary fiction and historical fiction. It is definitely a story of male love, but it is in no way sexually explicit. It is first and foremost a beautiful story of transcendent love, devotion, and destiny, a small piece of a history of a very great life. I highly recommend it to all readers.




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Review: SECOND CHANCE LOVE by Shannon Farrington

NOTE (August 3, 2015): I wrote this review months ago before the book mentioned was released. It’s now available! So, I’ve inserted a link to its Amazon page and updated the cover photo.

As I’ve noted on this blog, I have the privilege of being a copy editor for a major romance publisher, Harlequin. It allows me to read a wide sampling of books, everything from steamy suspense to sweet inspirationals through complex coming-of-age, mystery, and family tales. Anyone who thinks romance is one-size-fits-all storytelling should sit at my computer for a few weeks to have the lie put to that generalization. Romance, or more widely, women’s fiction, is enormously varied. I’ve edited some absolutely wonderful novels by talented authors over the past few years that deserve attention. (And don’t get me started on how many of these books get ignored by mainstream, especially literary, publications whose editors might curl their lips or roll their eyes when they see the imprint of the world’s most well-known romance publisher on a book.)

Recently, I edited an inspirational historical due out later this year. I don’t usually blog about a book that’s not yet released, but I asked the editor if I could do so with this one. So, here goes:

When Shannon Farrington’s Second Chance Love hits the shelves this summer, buy a copy. Buy one if you’ve never read an inspirational in your life. Buy one if you don’t usually read historicals. The reason I make this recommendation: Ms. Farrington’s book is about more than faith, about more than a love story, even about more than the historical period in which it’s set–the Civil War. It contains, amidst the lovsecondchancelovee story and the historical detail, a lesson that we all should absorb today: Loving your neighbor means…loving your neighbor, not hating those who don’t feel the same way as you do.

First, don’t be put off by the fact that this is an inspirational novel (for those outside the publishing world, inspirational novels are stories with no sex or cursing, but do contain some faith elements; back in the day, these novels would have been mainstream–think Jane Eyre, which is drenched in faith messages). The story is a universal one about love both in the discrete sense (the love between a man and a woman) and in the general sense (those pesky neighbors).

The tale in a nutshell: In 1864 Baltimore, Elizabeth, the heroine, mourns the death of her fiance, a Union soldier felled not by battle but disease, specifically pneumonia. Adding to her grief is the knowledge that she could have married him before his death if not for his brother David’s advice to delay until the war was over. David, it turns out, had an ulterior motive for that counsel–he’s in love with Elizabeth. But now he’s overwhelmed with guilt, knowing his feelings might have denied his brother and Elizabeth at least some short happiness together. To make up for this mistake, he takes on the responsibility of aiding her family, taking a job at a local newspaper to be near them. He learns that Elizabeth is an excellent sketch artist and gets his editor to use her talents for the paper. As she accompanies him on assignments, the two form a close friendship that eventually blossoms into true love.

About those newspaper assignments: David covers the movement to ban slavery in Maryland. Many people might not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery in Union states, of which Maryland was one. So, it was up to the local citizenry to handle that task. Maryland did so by rewriting its constitution, which required calling a constitutional convention, drafting a new document, and then sending it back to the people for a vote.

Ms. Farrington handles all this detail seamlessly. You never feel you’re being treated to an “info dump,” where the author bestows all the hard work of her research on you, necessary or not. She includes enough history to keep the plot moving, and enough to educate you about a difficult period, but never so much that you feel pulled out of the story for a history lesson.

She also respects the time and place. I’ve written before about historical novelists who make faulty assumptions. Ms. Farrington does not fall into those traps. As a Baltimore native, I knew, for example, that the main railroad station is on Charles Street. But in Civil War days, that station had not yet been built.
A lesser author might have assumed it was the main train station back in the day because it is now. Not Ms. Farrington. She knew what stations to place her characters in, even what buildings now-well-known institutions occupied in the 1860s (different from those they occupy today). She respected the time period.

But here’s where her historical accuracy contained lessons for today–it’s easy, looking in our rearview mirror, to see how abhorrent slavery was and to wonder how any civilized people, especially those in a “northern” state (yes, Maryland was a border state, but Baltimore is more northern than southern), could find anything at all to debate about outlawing this “peculiar institution,” especially after their president had emancipated slaves elsewhere. Ms. Farrington shows as well as tells the story of the challenges of the debate in Maryland. Some abolitionists, the “Unconditionals,” wanted to go beyond outlawing slavery, imposing other requirements on their adversaries, such as taking a loyalty oath before voting. These measures rankled those whose minds were troubled by slavery but weren’t yet in the abolitionist camp.

Not for one second is Ms. Farrington sympathetic to a pro-slavery view. But she does show how outlawing slavery in Maryland was a closer vote than it needed to be, some of which was due to unsavory efforts of  “Unconditionals.”

And therein, for me at least, lies the great moral of this story, one that I’ve shared with friends and policy advocates over the years: if you want to move an issue forward, you have to love it and those it benefits more than you hate its opponents.

Three cheers to Shannon Farrington for wisely presenting this view in a beautiful story. Second Chance Love.




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Book Review: A Disease in the Public Mind: Why We Fought the Civil War

a-disease-in-the-public-mind_originalThomas Fleming’s book A Disease of the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War is specifically about why America fought the Civil War. But it also provides invaluable insights into public policy debates in general. When opposing sides of a policy argument end up hating their adversaries more than they love those who would benefit from their cherished policy, beware. Battle, of some sort, looms.

In this page-turning book, Fleming attempts to answer a very specific question: Why did America, of all the civilized countries with histories of slavery, engage in a civil war to end this horrible practice? Great Britain, Brazil, Cuba, all ended slavery without resorting to the civil war that occurred in the United States of America, where brother sometimes fought brother over the right to own slaves or not.

The simple answer to Fleming’s question can be found in two passionate emotions: hatred and fear. But when you finish the book, you’ll be surprised at who seemed filled with the most hatred. Hint: it wasn’t the South.

Fleming poses his question after presenting some intriguing facts in the book’s preface: Only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves. And of that 6 percent, a much, much smaller percentage owned 50 or more slaves, qualifying them for the title of “planter.” Yet Southerners who didn’t own slaves fought shoulder-to-shoulder with those who did. Did they love slavery that much? Did they disdain the African-American so fiercely that they were willing to die for such hateful beliefs?

Fleming proposes that the South was motivated more by fear than hatred. They feared a race rebellion that would leave their wives, sons and daughters dead and/or mutilated, killed perhaps with ghastly spikes or machetes after watching their menfolk dispatched in the same way.

These weren’t unreasonable beliefs, Fleming points out. News of the 1804 race rebellion in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) carried gruesome accounts of whites being “hacked to death,” killed by amputation and beheadings, even after they paid ransoms to leave the island unharmed.

Not too long after this was the 1831 Nat Turner uprising in Virginia where slaves slaughtered “whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes and school children…”

But maybe most influential was the story of the ferocious abolitionist John Brown. Brown was bankrolled by wealthy northern abolitionists. He used some of the money to create a cache of spikes (found among Brown’s weaponry at the failed 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid) specifically to give to slaves to kill southern whites. The message many southerners absorbed from this was unambiguous: It wasn’t merely that northerners didn’t understand them. Northerners, in fact, wished them dead at the hands of slaves. There wasn’t much negotiating room there.

Brown himself was a maniacal terrorist who killed indiscriminately; among his earlier victims was a Kansas family, people who never owned nor intended to own slaves. The surviving mother of that slaughtered clan wrote Brown a note before his death in which she wished her surviving son could be at Brown’s hanging. The first man to die in the Harper’s Ferry raid, by the way, was a freed black man killed by Brown’s marauders.

When northerners—including the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson—made John Brown into a hero and martyr, Southerners felt their concerns were more than justified. Northerners cared nothing about their fears of slave insurrection. If anything, they supported such a possibility. In “dozens of New England cities,” Fleming wrote, church bells rang to mark the passing of Brown.

Robert E. Lee famously said: “I shall never bear arms against the Union. But it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.”

 He probably spoke for most Southerners. The majority might not have cared all that deeply about slavery, but they weren’t about to let Northerners who hated them end the practice without ensuring the safety of Southern whites.

This is the “disease of the public mind,” of which Fleming’s title speaks. It was the consuming fear among southerners that their survival was at stake. On the northern side, the “disease” was a sickly concoction of hate-inspiring conspiracy theories about southerners—so many Founding Fathers and early presidents and leaders had come from the south that Northerners dubbed this dominance as “the Slave Power,” as if it were a vast cabal tied into all aspects of power and privilege, something that could only be toppled with bloodshed.

Slavery, of course, was a ghastly practice that never should have begun and should have ended quickly. Fleming doesn’t spend a lot of time on moral opprobrium, however. He’s more interested in telling the story of why Southerners felt so afraid for their families that leaving a Union indifferent to their fears seemed their only recourse, and then armed defense of their home states the only final option.

Reading Fleming’s page-turning book took me back to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. In that work of fiction, at one point a pacifist preacher confronts his abolitionist father about his pre-Civil War activities, some of which involved helping John Brown, to make the point that charity toward the slave had not been his father’s motivation:

“I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…I defer to no one in this. Not to you, not to Paul the Apostle, not to John the Divine. Reverend.”

Even the New York Times chastised Northern abolitionist attitudes toward the South in the wake of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid, saying in an editorial that many abolitionists were people:

“…who do not love the slave as much as they hate the white.”

This hatred—of southerners—eventually inspired one passionate abolitionist to leave the cause. Fleming tells the tale of Theodore White Weld who, after working hard at the anti-slavery cause, eventually came to the conclusion that calling slave owners vicious names and being indifferent to southerners’ fears of slave insurrections did not help anything and was, in fact, the opposite of Christian charity.

Fleming doesn’t offer any suggestions as to how the Civil War could have been avoided, but an imaginative mind can envision scenarios. Perhaps a compensation plan, akin to the one Great Britain adopted for its West Indies slave-owners, coupled with assurances of federal aid in the event of the feared race war, would have gone a long way. The Virginia legislature had, after all, seriously debated ways to abolish slavery in the state, and didn’t vote to secede from the union immediately. Surely there was room for compromise among thoughtful southerners. Was there in the north?

There’s no question slavery was evil. But not all southerners were. When they decided to fight, they were more likely fighting to defend home and hearth against the imagined race war. The north certainly had never taken their fears seriously and had, in fact, affirmed them at times by underwriting terrorists like Brown.

The lessons to take away from Fleming’s excellent work are plentiful. But one that has played in my mind for some time before even opening his tome was this: to move any policy forward effectively, adversaries shouldn’t resort to demonizing their opponents.

In modern times, this demonization process is a great fundraising tool. Like John Brown’s wealthy northern backers, rich activists open their wallets to fund many policy campaigns (at this point, I’m sure liberal readers are thinking “Koch brothers,” while conservatives are thinking “George Soros” and Hollywood). Social media, too, often fans the fames of outrage, as advocates use it to grow mailing lists and locate potential donors.

But the results of these tactics are troubling. Hatred becomes more important than problem-solving. Tenderness and empathy for differing viewpoints, even when disagreeing with them, is lost. And occasionally, even violence erupts  (such as the SPLC’s listing of the Family Research Council on its “hate map” because of its opposition to gay marriage, inspiring a maniac to shoot up the FRC headquarters).

In such an environment, calling gay marriage opponents bigots becomes more important than actually treating opponents’ concerns about marriage seriously in order to effectively dispel them; hating the NRA becomes more important than effectively pushing gun control forward; loathing the NEA becomes more satisfying than the hard work of choice-oriented education reform.

Fleming’s compelling tale is a new look at an old issue, but it has much relevance for today.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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