A fictional (and worthy) look at Abraham Lincoln

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Stephen Harrigan. Knopf. 415 pages. $27.95.
A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Stephen Harrigan. Knopf. 415 pages. $27.95.

An estimated 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, including volumes on his sex life and a recent fanciful novel about him as a slayer of vampires. This novel, deeply researched and elegantly written by distinguished Texas author Stephen Harrigan, who wrote a brilliant 2001 novel about the Alamo, is a worthy addition to the canon of Lincoln fiction.

“A Friend of Mr. Lincoln” fixes on the future president as a young climber on the Illinois prairie, at a time when he was trying to figure out who he was and what he was capable of doing. The “friend” of the title is youthful poet Cage Weatherby, one of the few characters invented by Harrigan to serve as prism and sounding board for the young Lincoln.

Weatherby, who himself aspires to greatness, watches with growing admiration, occasional disappointment and not a little envy as his ungainly friend rises from frontier soldier to cunning litigator and crafty legislator, a man for whom personal integrity is paramount — even perhaps to a fault.

We glimpse Lincoln the great man only briefly, in the book’s opening and at the end. Instead, Harrigan’s Lincoln is the “Strange Friend and Friendly Stranger” of Carl Sandburg’s telling — painfully insecure yet growing in quiet confidence, bawdy yet surprisingly eloquent, lacking in social graces but clearly possessed of surpassing legal and political skills. Although this is a fictional Lincoln, Harrigan’s careful scholarship and graceful prose guarantee insights into the real man that few biographies can deliver.

Kevin Duchschere reviewed this book for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)