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
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
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