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Lincoln's Better Angel

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Lincoln's Better Angel
                       a novel by David L. Selby
Review by JMW
 

The action of Lincoln’s Better Angel  picks up on July 4th – a pivotal day in the life of protagonist Charles Huggins.  Throughout this first portion of the book we learn about Huggins and the people in his life, as well as the events which  have brought him to a turning point on this day.  This is a day when the accumulated stresses of his life – and the anniversary of his son’s death in Iraq – finally push him to the limits of his endurance.  A lucky happenstance intervenes, and he goes on to go to work – and an encounter reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, with a man he originally believes to be a Lincoln impersonator, but comes to understand actually IS Abraham Lincoln.    As the day goes on, the men debate the history and decisions of Lincoln -- and other pivotal figures in American history -- and how they have affected the present day, especially in attitudes toward race.

The strong detail and time spent on establishment of character and setting in some ways doesn’t follow conventional publishing wisdom that an exciting  “hook” is needed immediately to draw in the audience.  Rather, this book  is more like the classic Victorian novels, which  slowly introduce you to the characters and their world, building detail on detail  until you see the world through the characters’ eyes.

In creating the character of Huggins, David Selby demonstrates the same gift for creating complex characters so evident throughout his career as an actor.  This character is well thought out, with layers of fine details of worldbuilding and character that add up to a realistically flawed and interesting human being that the audience can care about.  Equally important is the fact that this is done in a manner that enables you to see and identify with the character, without turning into a meaningless list of characteristics or an infodump. The character is recognizable: a man of a certain generation, a working man with a strong work ethic which prevails no matter what life has thrown at him.   A decent man who has pride in hard work and a job well done, who has played by the rules all his life, yet whom life has not treated kindly to the point where he is finally beaten down to the point of despair. Those who know the true story behind this book (briefly recapped  in the acknowledgements)  -- or saw the play Lincoln & James  -- will recognize Huggins’ reminiscence  about a friend who had worked at the Lincoln Memorial , and had died of heatstroke after a double shift on a brutally hot July 4th.  This reference to the real James Hudson, and establishing that it was to honor him that Charles took the position at the Monument, is a nice tribute to the flesh and blood man whose story was the inspiration for both the play and this novel.

Selby’s Lincoln is neither plaster saint, or icon, myth or legend – much less the noble martyr that he became the moment he was shot  --  but a real, flawed human being who was also a self serving politician.  During his conversation with Huggins, he admits that on more than a few issues (for example his ill fated plan to deport the freed slaves to Liberia) he was “a politician trying to have it both ways”.  A good touch  in the portrayal of the historical Lincoln is that he either does not know or misunderstands a number of modern word usages. (The one which sticks in my mind is his having no reference for “gay” meaning anything other than happy-go-lucky.)

It’s in this portrayal of Lincoln that Selby’s research skills really shine. He demonstrates an extremely strong knowledge of both the good and bad in Lincoln and his policies, as well as portraying him with the realistic prejudices of a man of his class, race and time.  Speaking as a history buff and a long time reader of history and historical fiction (and some discussion groups for historical authors) as well as someone who has written  extensive amounts of  period fanfiction, I commend the work and  research which had to have gone into accurately coordinating the  characters’ back and forth over issues and events of Lincoln’s time.  Then again, it’s often forgotten that David Selby is more than the sum of his looks, and holds both a masters degree and a doctorate (though not in history) as well as having taught at the university level.  Another thing to be commended on the history is that Dr. Selby does not indulge in historical revisionism.  His Lincoln is not forced to be politically correct, but holds opinions of a man of his time, which to modern sensibilities are on occasion bigoted or racist or offensive– and sometimes all of the above.

It is in that back and forth questioning that the past meets the future.  Huggins, though not college educated, is an intelligent, well read man who thinks about issues and about the world around him.  He’s read extensively about Lincoln and his times, as Lincoln was a personal hero of his since he was a boy.  He thus has the information to question him about certain decisions and actions which had unexpected consequences and repercussions which echo to the present day. A particular sore point was Lincoln’s undeclared war, which led in turn to the undeclared war in Vietnam that he himself was involved in, as well as the one in Iraq which took the life of his only son.

During the course of their evening, Lincoln (and the audience) has to examine his actions and attitudes: where did conviction end and the necessary evils of political expediency begin.  To what degree did Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts in violating the Bill of Rights to save the Union cause problems when later presidents used his precedent without the extraordinary circumstances he faced? What part did this expediency play in the racist opinions that exist to this day?  To what degree do the mindsets which linger from slavery and Jim Crow contribute to today’s social problems? The no holds barred nature of these exchanges, and examination of the whys and wherefores of Lincoln’s decisions brings to mind a quote from TS Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a play about the moral decisions faced by Thomas a’ Becket in Medieval England.   “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  Or in Lincoln’s case one could say “…do the wrong thing for the right reasons.”

As the characters in this book say regarding the Gettysburg Address, “The words have to be spoken”.  In this book David Selby has done an excellent job of articulating the moral dilemmas and consequences of actions which are the price of a free society.

review @2008 by JMW and may not be used in any other venue without citation and prior permission

This website is @2004-2013 by JMW. No original article or photograph may be reprinted in any form without prior written permission from JMW