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Courting Mr. Lincoln

Review

Courting Mr. Lincoln

I was introduced to Louis Bayard in 2003 when MR. TIMOTHY first saw publication. What drew me to the book was that it utilized characters from perhaps my all-time favorite novel, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Mr. Timothy was in fact the grown-up Timothy "Tiny Tim" Cratchit, who is now investigating a series of murders. Bayard has made a career of working in different genres and styles, and his writing has always been stellar throughout. In 2006, he returned to historical fiction with THE PALE BLUE EYE, which featured, among other characters, Edgar Allan Poe.

My hat always must be tipped to Caleb Carr for recreating and reinvigorating the historical fiction/thriller genre and making it “cool” again with the release of THE ALIENIST in 1994. After receiving literary awards for his two forays into historical fiction, Bayard is back at it with COURTING MR. LINCOLN. Those who have been privileged to read the terrific historical mystery series by Jonathan F. Putnam will be well-versed in the relationship between young Abraham Lincoln and his best friend, Joshua Speed, as they are the central characters in these books.

The year is 1840, and the place is Springfield, Illinois. This entire novel is like a portal to a simpler time when there was no television, cell phones or computers. People actually had to attend functions like dinner parties and outdoor gatherings in order to converse with their neighbors. This also was the only way to begin the courting process and meet your potential lifelong mate. That is a key plot element, as the title reveals, in COURTING MR. LINCOLN. Bayard keeps things interesting by alternating narrators between Mary Todd and Joshua Speed. Through both, we are able to get different perspectives on the young man who arguably would become the most popular President in U.S. history.

"COURTING MR. LINCOLN is engaging because Bayard has such a fine way with words.... The result is a triumph of a novel and an unforgettable read that is a true page turner."

Part One is narrated by Mary, and the viewpoint of Lincoln is so markedly different once you start reading the passages narrated by Speed that I could not help but smile at the humorous dichotomy. The first time we see Mary, she is a teenager who, on a bet, is throwing herself into local society in search of a husband she can show off to her family and friends. However, it is not without much self-doubt, as she often questions why she should leave the safety of her family home and four walls of her room to step out into the unknown.

Mary first meets Speed, who she knows as the owner of a store called Bell & Company, which specializes in dry goods. Needless to say, she respects Speed but is not overwhelmed by him as a potential suitor. However, she does show some interest in the distant and curious Lincoln. One of her friends suggests she throw herself at him hard as it would take a special woman to pry him from Speed’s side. The difference in the first meeting between Mary and Lincoln is apparent when Speed narrates that occurrence as an encounter that did not go well. Lincoln actually approaches him at the end of the dinner party where they meet and states that he wishes he was a drinking man.

The courtship process is so different back then that it's like reading about characters from another planet. It’s nice to see Lincoln's progress on the political spectrum as he rises from law student to lawyer to presidential candidate. Ironically, the first “gift” he presents Mary is a copy of a reelection notice he had received when he triumphed over other local Whig candidates. Equally as important as the burgeoning relationship between Mary and Lincoln is the friendship between Lincoln and Speed. They are quite inseparable and make a great team. They often toast to their own brotherhood and bachelorhood, and there is nary a jealous note spoken between them.

Bayard's descriptions of the characters and the dialogue he creates are delightful. It becomes so easy to imagine the seven-inch difference in height between Lincoln and Speed, as well as the “proper lady” front put on by Mary that brings out the awkward and clumsy nature of the extremely tall and lanky Lincoln. A scene in which he shows off his wrestling prowess by nearly asphyxiating Speed has the reverse reaction he wanted by setting Mary off at the display of machismo. However, the competition to keep up with her own courting sister in addition to several other young ladies from her circle keeps Mary determined to land Lincoln and mold him into the man she hopes he can be.

What Bayard has accomplished is to take popular figures in U.S. history and not only make them more real --- if that is possible --- but humanize them to a level where we all can relate to them. COURTING MR. LINCOLN is engaging because Bayard has such a fine way with words. It is not mere machinations but actual human encounters and conversations complete with the awkwardness and foibles that all of us experience in our own lives. The result is a triumph of a novel and an unforgettable read that is a true page turner.

The conclusion, which jumps to 1882, allows us to see Mary Todd Lincoln in the wake of the end we all know is coming for her husband. But now have the opportunity to see it through the eyes and thoughts of young Mary, who existed long before the First Lady we have come to respect and admire.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 26, 2019

Courting Mr. Lincoln
by Louis Bayard

  • Publication Date: April 23, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616208473
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208479