Title: A Friend of Mr. Lincoln
Author: Stephen Harrigan
Length: 415 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ½
During the Black Hawk War, Cage Weatherby encounters a tall, gangly fellow militiaman named Lincoln. They become friends after the war, though Cage is a poet and Lincoln an aspiring lawyer and politician. Over the years, they support each other–especially as they fall in and out of love with unsuitable women–but Cage becomes disillusioned with what he sees as his friend’s dishonorable actions and hypocritical views on slavery, which Cage fiercely opposes. He must decide whether he can remain friends with a man he no longer respects or indeed even trusts.
If you’re like me, you would pick up this book because it’s (ostensibly) about Abraham Lincoln. And while he certainly frequents the pages, it’s the stiff, unlikable titular–and very fictional–character who is, unfortunately, the protagonist. Cage as dull and uninteresting as plain toast. He is perpetually unhappy or at least dissatisfied and comes across as both self-pitying and self-righteous, a somewhat jarring combination.
Cage’s worldview, and as a result that of the entire book, was just too cut-and-dry, too black-and-white for me. In case anyone was in doubt, Slavery was Bad and Wrong and Evil. I’m not denying that, but this book really smacks you upside the head with those supposed “lessons,” and it gets old fast.
And instead of being a solid friend of Lincoln’s, Cage–while he is usually there when Lincoln needs him–mostly judges him and finds him wanting. Cage fills in for the modern reader by wanting Lincoln to be noble, honest, and saintly at all times…for some reason. This allows Harrigan to point out–many, many times–that poor Lincoln, just a young man after all, was flawed and not yet the man he would become in twenty-five years’ time.
I’m more familiar with Lincoln than most people (though I also admit that I love him to bits, so my opinion isn’t entirely objective either). Harrigan’s portrait of him is accurate in a technical sense, at least. Lincoln was provincial and self-taught; he was a storyteller; he was prone to self-deprecation and melancholy and did indeed probably suffer what we think of as clinical depression. He lacked social graces and was awkward with women. (A small aside: I was delighted that Ann Rutledge got a somewhat extended mention early on.)
Yet this true-to-life portrait is accompanied by Cage’s near-constant criticism, and while I’m all for realism, Harrigan also never misses an opportunity to give Lincoln something vulgar to say. (If I never have to read Lincoln, fictional or otherwise, use the word “pecker” again, it will be too soon.) I appreciate the technical accuracy, since Harrigan clearly did his research, but he should have let the execution speak for itself rather than using Cage as a way to hammer his points home.
Cage’s love interest, Ellie–one-time battered wife, one-time prostitute–was the only other half-decent character in the book, but her story fizzled out and left me unsatisfied. She is fiercely independent and infuriatingly distant. The nature of her feelings for Cage, and even his for her, are never properly explored. Perhaps this is because Friend is not really Cage’s story (though it isn’t quite Lincoln’s either).
As for the other major female character, Lincoln’s eventual wife Mary Todd…well, Harrigan must hate the poor woman. Full disclosure: I’m no fan of Mary Lincoln myself. True, she was charming and well-educated and well-connected, and had he not married her Lincoln may never have become president, but I think she and Lincoln were poorly matched. Their relationship was often an unhealthy one, and as Harrigan shows, Lincoln certainly had his doubts before he married her.
However, I don’t think she was the manipulative, grasping “hellcat” (as she was sometimes called in Washington) that Harrigan paints her as. For all her faults, she was a loving mother, a generous and charitable neighbor, and important personal political advisory to her husband. She was high-strung and easily manipulated, especially as First Lady–but she was far from stupid. At first I was looking forward to a realistic, even-handed portrayal of Mary. Instead, Cage dislikes and judges her even more than he does Lincoln. And then he gives us this bizarre description:
…[H]er skin [was] as luminous as marble in the candlelight, a silver necklace fastened at her throat in a way whose suggestiveness he could not logically interpret. It was as if she had put it there only to signal that it should be removed, that everything she wore was only for the purpose of making you understand that there was bare skin beneath it. (334)
W-what…? I’m sort of reluctant to cry sexism, but between passages like the one above (in which her weight is almost always mentioned) and Cage’s constant belief that Mary reveals her conniving ways and ulterior motives in everything she says and does…well, it was unpleasant to read, to say the least. Mostly, it left me wondering: Just what does Stephen Harrigan have against Mary Lincoln?
(Also, a tiny aside, but it bothered me: Robert Lincoln really did have lazy eye as a child and really had surgery to correct it. As someone who’s struggled with the same condition and been highly self-conscious of it her whole life, I didn’t like the dismissal of “Bobbie” being potentially cross-eyed as Mary’s ridiculous paranoia at all.)
I can’t fault the writing itself. Harrigan is a good, solid writer. His actual prose was sometimes a bit dry, but otherwise, fine and sometimes even lovely. But since there’s no real plot and little character development to go along with it, it falls a little flat. Worse, time flows in fits and bursts, sometimes skipping months and years at a time, with the result that the narrative seems unbalanced.
What A Friend of Mr. Lincoln has going for it is its strong sense of time and place; other than his constant judgmental tone regarding Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Harrigan has nailed the art of historical fiction writing (this is his tenth novel). But good prose and a solid setting alone do not a good novel make, and the other flaws–namely, a weak main character and the lack of any actual story–really hindered my enjoyment of this book. Maybe I doomed it to failure before I even started with my high expectations. I don’t know. All I can say is that it was definitely a disappointment.