Lincoln and New Salem

My blog has been quiet for the few months as I’ve been working on my thesis for my graduate program at Pacific University. My thesis is a portion of a novel set in a fictional town not far from New Salem, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln spent six years before moving to Springfield to become a lawyer. The book takes place in the twenty-first century, and Lincoln’s New Salem (the historic site that was established a century ago) sets the stage for one character’s sense of her present. It was this character’s fascination with Illinois’s grip on Abraham Lincoln that led me to look at what’s been written about Lincoln’s time in Illinois, the years during which he finished growing up and grew into himself. I was particularly interested in picture books, for how they frame young Lincoln for young readers.

Young Abe Lincoln: The Frontier Days, 1809-1837, Cheryl Harness: Harness’s text is beautifully augmented with illustrations, like a map of “Young Abe’s Country” that includes key places, important lore, and Abe’s prehistory. The dialogue is all in (some variety of Kentucky?) dialect. Young Abe Lincoln focuses on the central role of education and Lincoln’s mother and stepmother, and there’s foreshadowing, references to Abe the icon–his height, his early encounters with slavery, river crossings, and his greatness: “Good boys who to their books apply/ Will be great men by and by.” New Salem occupies just the last three pages of the book, with just oblique references to his time there.

Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln, Judith St. George: This book is marketed as a “Turning Point Book,” and St. George asks, “Was there a turning point in [the young lives of our 42 presidents] that caused them to change direction and set them on a path that led them to the White House?” Like Harness, St. George highlights Lincoln’s early contact with slaves, his love of learning, his mother’s influence, and his stepmother’s encouragement, but she also points to other sources of early grief–the death of a baby brother, the loss of a pet pig–while the illustrations paint Abe as a cunning, mischievous little boy. New Salem get just one sentence (“As a man, Abraham Lincoln climbed out of poverty the same way, peg by peg–from riverman to store clerk to postmaster to surveyor to lawyer.”).

Abe Lincoln’s Dream: This was a different sort of book, with nothing about New Salem. A little girl on a White House tour meets Lincoln’s ghost, who’s worried about what happened to the US after his presidency. The setup and the style are unique, like circus posters or comic books, and we see the grown-up version of the Abe of St. George and Harness: playful but melancholy.

I loved paging through these books, finding the gaps in the stories each author told, the places where history and fiction both could add the rich details of Lincoln’s early life.

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