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New Book Explores Abraham Lincoln's Life - 2003-02-08

February 12 is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the American President who ended slavery and led the nation through a civil war. That 19th century conflict became so closely tied to Lincoln's name that it came to be known as Mister Lincoln's War. Now fiction writer Adam Braver explores the battles confronting Lincoln on many fronts personal and political-in a book called Mr. Lincoln's Wars: A Novel in Thirteen Stories.

Cities and universities have been named for Abraham Lincoln, his face appears on the U.S. $5 bill, and tourists flock to the massive Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Adam Braver grew up reading historical accounts of the revered President's life. When he became a writer himself, he decided Lincoln would also be an ideal subject for fiction. "He had the heroism," he said. "He had the stature. But he also has these conflicts raging both personally and professionally. That's coupled with the fact that I was very fascinated by the conflicts between public life and personal life in celebrities in general, how people negotiate in the public's eye versus what they're feeling inside."

The stories in Mister Lincoln's Wars focus on the final days of his Presidency, climaxing with his assassination in 1865. But they range over his life, exploring his depression, his strained relations with his wife, and most of all, his grief over losing his young son, Willie. "What I was interested in was what he must have felt like to lead this brutal war that was practically right outside his doorstep, while inside, his son had died within the last few years," said Adam Braver. "History tells us he and Willie were very close, and I can't imagine drawing up battle plans in which other people will lose their children as well."

Here's how Adam Braver introduces Lincoln in the book's first story, No More Time for Tears. "His face looks sunken, cheekbones drawn out in a sharp cut, with thin jowls of flesh formed under his eyes that locked off to the distance. And his boy, Willie, had died three years ago at the age of twelve, and not too far away, all up and down the seaboard, soldiers had been lying in infirmaries screaming and moaning and crying like boys with men's pains, and some cursed Lincoln and others called him a good man, none of them ever imagining their president falling to his knees and fighting for breath while his eyes stayed dry and the inside of his head seemed as if it would drown in a thousand different lakes. And even after three years he only occasionally came up for air, the rest of the time being spent holding on to his last breath."

The stories are also told from the perspective of soldiers, their parents, Lincoln associates and family members. Historians often portray Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, as selfish and neurotic, but Adam Braver imagines how she must have felt to lose a son, and be married to a public figure absorbed in his own world of problems. "What I wanted to show was that she also was a compassionate person and to some degree a victim of her circumstances as well," he said. "In one chapter she goes out to visit soldiers in the hospitals just to comfort them, without even identifying who she is, which in fact was true according to what I read. So I wanted to show she was a good person. And there's a part where she wishes that he were a little more compassionate to her."

Other stories describe people who resent or even despise Lincoln for forcing them into a war they don't believe in. There's even a story about John Wilkes Booth, the southern sympathizer who assassinated Lincoln. Adam Braver says he began writing his book on the West Coast, then midway through the project moved to the southern state of North Carolina. Living in the region that lost the Civil War gave him new perspectives on Lincoln. "One is that he was not loved by everybody, and seen as this tremendous heroic figure who saved democracy and the United States as we know it," continued Adam Braver. "There are still plenty of people in the South who hold him accountable for everything wrong that's gone on in the country, much in the same way as people did then. It was also interesting to me living here how he's still present in so many peoples' minds. You're surrounded by the battlefields. You're surrounded by social issues that are still traced back to the Civil War. It's still recent history here."

While he relied on his imagination to explore the inner lives of his characters, Adam Braver also borrowed from historical documents. Information suggesting Lincoln may have had a troubled relationship with his father inspired some of the tales.

Another story describes the autopsy performed after his assassination. Adam Braver says he used Lincoln's actual autopsy report, which he found on the Internet, to write the story. Did he ever feel he went too far in humanizing an American icon? "I can remember a few moments writing it where I thought, 'Boy I'm really crossing some lines here,' " he said. "But once I crossed those lines, and he went from being the statues and the images on the currency to a real person, it almost felt a little liberating to me to see him have foibles, see him do things we couldn't imagine him doing, but that he probably did."

Having created his own flawed and vulnerable Abraham Lincoln, Adam Braver says it was hard to return to his old image of Lincoln as the venerated statesman. And while he'd never thought of himself as a historical novelist, he's now so interested in the gap between myth and reality that he's working on a novel about another celebrity, Sarah Bernhardt, whose acting career spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Photos courtesy HarperCollins Publishers