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Sunday, July 6, 2014

That Nation Might Live: A Review

Baseball is the topic that typically graces the virtual pages of this blog. However, today we are shifting a bit to explore an historical figure—and one of my personal favorites, 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Jeff Oppenheimer has written That Nation Might Live: A Story of Motherhood, Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War. This is the transcript of an 1865 interview Lincoln friend William H. Herndon had with Sarah Bush Lincoln, the aging step-mother of the Great Emancipator. What makes this more than your run of the mill historical primary document is that the author the recreates the setting of the conversation from his own imagination, using the actual notes of the event where possible.

Artistic license and history don’t usually play nicely together but Oppenheimer makes it work here. Although Bush Lincoln was one of the most important and beloved figures in her famous step-son’s life, she is often pushed to the fringe of his story. Refreshingly, here she is front and center, and the role this hard scrabble woman had in Lincoln’s life shines through in this interpretation of her collective memories.

Rightfully so, Lincoln is remembered as one of the greatest leaders the United States has ever known. Interestingly, such recognition may be actually an understatement for someone who navigated the country through the start of the abolition of slavery and a vicious civil war that had no business ending in anything other than abject disaster. That someone like the former president, who grew up in rustic cabins with dirt floors and tragedy, is a testament to the way he was raised and the opportunities he was provided out of such difficult circumstances.

Bush Lincoln came into Lincoln’s life when he was a young boy after his own mother had died of an illness. Despite barely being out of her teens herself, she rapidly proved to be an effective parental figure, providing encouragement for her lanky step-son to not be limited by the rough-hewn log walls and vast tracks of wild forest that surrounded him.

Herndon leads the conversation through Lincoln’s life, and Bush Lincoln is full of accompanying memories. In particular, two stories stand out in this rich compilation.

The first concerns Lincoln’s voracious appetite for books after he more or less taught himself to read. Living on the American frontier, literacy was nearly as rare available books. However, the enterprising youth found a curmudgeonly neighbor willing to lend volumes in exchange for work. After becoming fascinated by a biography of George Washington, it was damaged by rain before he could return it to his neighborhood librarian. Bush Lincoln not only helped him navigate through this accident, it was clear that while living an incredibly busy and hard life on the frontier, she still found time to feed the curiosity of her prodigy child by asking him questions and encouraging his curiosity.

The second defining story recounts a young adult Lincoln escorting cargo down the Mississippi River to New Orleans on a flat boat. It was this experience that first truly exposed him to slavery, the institution that would come to be tied to him later in life.  Bush Lincoln may not have been the most eloquent person but she clearly described how he was repulsed by the idea of humans in forced captivity, all the while trying to make sense of how it fit into his world and country, and how it all might one day be brought to an end.

Oppenheimer doesn’t make any new historical arguments, or present alternate theories. However, he never aims to, and that is not what this book is about. It is the rediscovery of the voice of a quiet yet important figure in American history. Giving Bush Lincoln a platform brings her and her experiences back to life and throws Abraham Lincoln in a light not typically found in your more mainstream works. That Nation Might Live is unconventional, but in many ways so was the former president—and look what he was able to accomplish.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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