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Award-winning historian and novelist Richard Slotkin recreates the childhood of Abe Lincoln.
In a brilliant work of historical imagination, Abe immerses the reader in the isolating poverty and difficult circumstances that shaped Abraham Lincoln's character. Marked by his mother's horrible death and the struggle to keep reading and learning in the face of his father's fierce disapproval, Abe persevered, growing into the complicated and empathetic man who changed the course of ...
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Award-winning historian and novelist Richard Slotkin recreates the childhood of Abe Lincoln.
In a brilliant work of historical imagination, Abe immerses the reader in the isolating poverty and difficult circumstances that shaped Abraham Lincoln's character. Marked by his mother's horrible death and the struggle to keep reading and learning in the face of his father's fierce disapproval, Abe persevered, growing into the complicated and empathetic man who changed the course of American history. Slotkin's Abe comes of age during a dramatic flatboat journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Along the way, Abe and his companions see slavery firsthand and experience the violence-and the pleasures-of frontier settlements and the cities of Natchez and New Orleans. Numerous historical characters make appearances alongside the colorful denizens of the Mississippi: preachers and vigilantes, planters and thieves, prostitutes and lady reformers.
Transformed by what he has seen and done, Abe returns to make his final break with his father and to step out of the wilderness into New Salem-and history.
"In Adam's Fall ..."
Nolin Creek, Kentucky, December 1810
Mam leaned forward and he wriggled his small needful body into the bony curve of her. It was dark all over home except where the fire made orange tongues, and flickered the log walls. Mam opened her Book, lifted her knees to rest it—and her lap rose under him so Abe fell softly into her.
His mother's hand moved on the face of the page. It was coming, very soon now. Her long fingers, big-knuckled with flattened tips like tongues, moved on the face of the page, and the spots and whirls and flashes, black on white, flowed out of them (very soon now), black spots and squibbets, and just as it always, always happened the flow of spots made her voice come: the telling voice, reading voice, the voice he loved more than anything: the voice only for him, in the dark, licked all over with orange tongues, flowing ...
... So his Mam, she put him in his leetl basket, that she made out o' bull-rushes. An' his warm swaddlin' all round him jest as he liked it. An' she set him to float down the river, down to where that princess was waitin' ...
He already knew what came after but needed to hear her speak it, tell how Moses would grow up tall, and whup the man that whupped the children, change the serpents to sticks and break the sea so the children could get over, and home to their milk and honey ...
Abe leaned back in the warm swaddling, the bony curve of Mam's body home-solid behind him, the riverflowing under them all, dark, and him drifting with it, yearning towards a dim shore that almost had a shape.
Abe and Mam sat on Two-Shoes, their mare.
Pap came out of the cabin with the rifle from over the fireplace. Never looked back. Never closed the door. Leftside the door was an empty hole, Pap had took the cabin's eye out. Pap's mouth was clinched. All their clothes and blankets, their food, Pap's long box of tools, Mam's cooking irons, the ax and plow-blade were piled in a two-wheeled cart Old Sam was hitched to. Pap said "Hup," and Sam started down the trail, moving off under the black trees with Sary running beside. Jack the Dog sprung up and padded quickstep after.
As the mare lurched to follow, Abe saw how black empty had come in through the open door and dead eye—inside where there was still the fireplace and Mam's chair and the table where they ate and her bed. But Pap never closed the door, so the dark got in, the empty. Now they'd never go home again, and nobody come ever to close the door against the dark, nor make the fire speak in tongues.
Sun splintered in the branches, they thumped on and on down the slot, black trees rising curling up and over him and falling away. Mam sang to him:
"I'm jest a pore, way-farin' stranger
A trav'lin' through this world of woe ..."
But his home was gone behind them and the dark coming in through the door Pap never closed. Pap should have broke the table, like Moses. Then if the dark got in, it couldn't stay.
His body jerked as he fell in dreams—Mam gripped him, and there he was again. It was night. Overhead a black river of sky ran between banks of trees, stars sparking on riffles of cloud. Pap stood in the door of a cabin holding the buckskin curtain aside so Sary could scoot in. She lit a rush dip, the empty window lit alongside the door. But this one was on the wrong side.
"Home, Abe," his Mam said.
It was the first time ever he knew her wrong. He twisted himself, trying to see her face.
She put her hand under his chin and he pressed his whole face down into her palm, and felt the flat warm smooth power of that hand closing over him eyes nose and mouth. He breathed her. Even if this wasn't home, at least she was.
Knob Creek, Kentucky, April 1815
They were plowing the south field. Pap geed and hawed Old Sam round the stumps, leaning on the plow-handles to drive the blade down the furrow. The earth broke and curled away to either side, loose dirt like dry water between Abe's toes, and a little brown smoke of dust drifted away. Jack the Dog trotted after Abe—a stumpy fice, haired over wild as a porky-pine, pink tongue lolling.
At the top of the field was a steep brushy bank, broken by ravines that cut back into rising ground. There were higher hills back of that, with rocky bald patches, which Pap called "the Knobs." Broad snake-tracks ran down out of the breaks and into the unplowed half of the field.
Clouds kept blowing by overhead, moving towards the Knobs, grumbling. Pap's face was knuckled, he kept looking up at the clouds blowing over towards the hills.
Then Jack said "Uf!" His ears pricked. He shot off sudden, pulled up short, and begun barking into the gap in the bank. Abe ran to the break and looked in. The cleft slanted back between high rough walls. The bottom was raw and full of round stones.
"Abe!" Pap's voice cracked, Abe's heart bolted and snubbed—Jack shut up barking, dropped his tail and turned his head. They both looked down the slope to where Pap had checked the horse. "Abe! You stay out them gullies now!"
Abe ran back down the slope, "What's gullies, Pap?"
"You stay out them gullies. There's painters and wolves. Mind now."
The high clouds blew by overhead, towards the gullies and over past them, up towards the high Knobs beyond. Muttering.
Pap looked up at the clouds, ugly, and said to the horse: "Blowin' right over my land. Drop ever' last bit o' rain up in the hills."
"Pap? Is it the rain makes them gullies?"
Pap looked down at him. He worked his mouth a little and Abe asked himself, What was goin' to come out? But nothing did. Pap just shook his head, like Abe was too many for him.
Up in the loft under the roof-tree Abe and Sary wrassled their blankets around to get well covered, dry shucks and leaves rustling in the ticks. This early in planting season night chill seeped through the shakes.
Down below Mam was banking the fire, Pap shuttering the window. Mam said: "They have built a school on Cumberland Road. I want Abe and Sary to go."
In the loft Sary put her warm lips in Abe's ear and whispered, They will larn us books and cipherin'!
Shhh, if Pap lets us.
Pap slammed the bar down across the door. "We got a crop to put in the ground—sech as it is! If could get my rights ..."
Mam said softly, "Maybe your brother Mordecai will see his way—" Pap's hard look must have stopped her.
Pap snorted, "I like the idea of a Hanks tellin' me what kin owes kin."
Then Mam had her quiet. Abe and Sary waited, wondering what she would get for it.
Finally: "I am goin' to read the children their good-night," she said. Pap said Um. Abe and Sary rustled themselves closer into their blankets so as not to be caught listening.
Mam came up the loft. Abe made room for her, dry leaves crunched in his bed-tick. First thing she said was, "Now you tell me 'bout them gullies you saw, Abe. What do you think made them gullies?" When he told her about the rain in the hills she said My, that was a smart thing for him to figure out. He couldn't see, but he knew she was smiling at him; could see clear as dreaming her long face, the clear straight-looking eyes a little drooped at the corners, deep-set under strong black brows, the sad planes of her face running down from sharp cheekbones—and how when she smiled at him the sad lines broke and lifted and her whole face shined.
"I think I'll read you Joseph tonight," she said. "Joseph was a right smart little boy, jest like you, Abe."
It was too close under the roof for her to hold him on her lap, too dark for him to see the black dots and whirls spinning out under her fingers. But it was no matter, Abe could picture her just as clear as soon as she opened the Book and begun to read.
She read him how Joseph was the best-loved son of Jacob, who was one of the Fathers of the Children of Isril. The other Children was Joseph's twelve brothers, and the brothers was angry `cause their Pappy liked Joseph best. So they took an' throwed him in a pit—a pit like you dig to trap a critter in. An' some nigger-traders come by, an' his brothers—they sold Joseph down into Egypt ...
"Mammy," said Abe, "what's niggers?"
"Niggers is slaves, honey," she said.
Slaves means whupping.
"They sold their brother to slave for a stranger down in the land of Egypt. Where he'd jest live a no-account life, never have nothin' to hisself—where they'd never have to set eyes on him again."
Abe couldn't see in the dark. He put out his hand and touched her. Couldn't hardly talk. "Why was they so mean to him, Mammy?"
She wasn't looking at the Book. "I don't know. I don't know what makes a man ... what makes folks as mean as they can be. If you got somethin' they want ... But sometimes the meanest folks can be is ag'in them that ain't got a thing."
"They sent him where nobody'd ever see him no more!" Abe remembered the door swinging open, the dark at home now where Mam used to hold him reading among the orange tongues, then the empty come inside the cabin and et it up.
Mam reached over and patted his head. "Shhh," she said. "Now don't you know? Book says, there can't a sparrow fall but the Lord will see it. Mean as folks can be, there's a power to make things right. The Lord, he give Joseph that power. That's why the Lord made him so smart, don't you see? Now you hesh, and let me tell you what happened to that Joseph ..."
... who become a servant in the house of Fayro. And one night a dream come to Joseph-a providence dream, sent by the Lord for a warning. So next morning Joseph rose up and went to Fayro ...
Suddenly, as sharp and clear as a dream, Abe saw exactly what Joseph would have seen—the gullies, the snake-tracks running into the unplowed ground—and he knew what Joseph would have told Fayro: "He told him the rain was comin'," Abe whispered, "down from the hills and through them gullies, and it's a-goin' to wash his corn right out the ground."
Then his throat closed. He knew he ought to warn Pap, like Joseph warned Fayro. But Pap was a hard man to tell things to, he was more like the Fayro Moses had to deal with, you didn't want to tell him anything without a good big stick in your hand.
The schoolroom was not much bigger than the cabin, and had only one window. A dozen children were ranged along three plank benches, Abe the youngest, on up to the Simms boy, who was fifteen—his linsey shirt splotched orange from tobacco-spit. Sary the biggest girl of three, all sitting on the front bench and no boys next to.
Abe felt lucky to be there. Mam had had to work on Pap from planting through harvest before he gave his word they could go. He had a grudge on book-learning.
Schoolmaster Riney sat behind a pinewood table. Stacked on it were small piles of books—Mr. Riney's precious Preceptors, his Histories and Geographies, his Spellers and Arithmetickers. Pegged to the log wall behind him were a pair of broad planks, planed smooth and painted black, and hung between them a bag of gypsum rocks to write with.
Mr. Riney had wrote things on the right-hand board, neat figures of curves and sharp angles, lined up regular: a big one next to a small. The schoolmaster was a little man, with sandy hair sprouting all which ways, a standing collar, boiled shirt, and black frock coat. He took a pointing stick in his hand and tapped it on the first row of figures drawn on the board. "We will have our alphabet! All at once, each letter as I point to it!" He tapped the first figure, and almost everybody said:
"Ay!" Then: "Bee!" Then "Cee," and "Dee," and on down the figures, tap, tap, tap and Abe never saw how they knew what to say. So he begun to puzzle the figures: they were all different and every one a different sound. He was puzzling so hard he missed what, suddenly, everyone was tee-heeing about, till the Master said, "The new boy—Abraham."
Abe looked up and met his eyes: sharp black points like iron nailheads they were.
"Abraham, can you say your letters?"
"No sir." He paused. "Don't know which of `em is mine."
The tee-heeing and haw-hawing just about buried him.
The Master rapped hard for silence and got it. He smiled at Abe. Now he heard the boy speak, he realized the lad was no more than six or seven—from the size of him, the long wrists and ankles showing beyond shirt and trouser cuffs, he had guessed him to be ten or eleven. So he gentled his voice: "They are all of them yours, Abraham. But shall I show you the ones that are yours particularly?"
The boy's white-blue eyes widened and he leaned forward in a way that was almost wolflike; his hands rose and the fingers spread a little as if some energy were filling and lifting him. It almost seemed as if he would spring and snatch the proffered gift from the Master's mouth.
Mr. Riney turned to the left-hand board. "Abe," he said. Then he said "Ay, Bee, Ee," and as he said each wrote the figure on the board. He turned and fixed his eyes on the boy—"Abe"—then tapped and carefully sounded the letters in turn, "Ayyy-b-' "with a wee breathstop when he touched the "E."
The Master made a gesture with his left hand, for Abe to stand, and as the Master pointed again to each letter Abe said: "Ayyy-b-uh ... Ayyy-b-uh."
"And the letters?"
"Ay," said Abe, "Bee. Ee. But how come it don't make Aybee?"
Tee-hee and haw-haw didn't bother him. It might have been him and the Master alone.
The Master smiled. "Some of the letters are special—the vowels. You've got two in your name." He tapped the board: "Ay can sound `ay' as in Abe, or `ah' as in ax," and he turned and wrote on the board AX. "Ay. Ecks." Then he tapped the E. "It's this `E' that's the dandy: because sometimes she sounds `ee,' like in cheese, and sometimes she sounds `eh' like in set—set down there Andrew Simms! And sometimes"—he grinned around at them—"sometimes she has no sound at all. And when she does that," he said triumphantly, "when she is silent, she changes the sound of A from `ah' "—he tapped AX—"to"—tapping ABE—" `ay'! Do you see?" He slapped his pointer on each word in turn, and as he did Abe answered, louder every time: "Abe! Ax! Abe! Ax! Abe! ..."
... He sang them all the way home through the woods, Abe! Ax! Abe! Ax! over and over, like the echo-bang of Pap's ax-work off in the trees. Those were his letters, that showed him the read of his name.
Out in the schoolyard at recess, Abe was writing his letters in the ground with a stick—ABE AX—when it come to him: he needed three letters to make "Abe." When Mam signed her name, she only needed one. He'd seen her do it when she signed him up for the school. He scratched her mark in the ground and said, "How come she only writes X?"
Andrew Simms, fifteen years old, was sitting nearby peeling a stick with his knife: "You talkin' to me?"
Well he hadn't been, but Abe wouldn't answer up if he took that tone.
Simms got up, walked over, and looked down at what Abe had written in the ground. "I heared you. You said, `How come she only writes X?' "He poked his chin at Abe daring him to answer.
Abe had to keep his eyes on Simms, but he felt the schoolyard gather around them. Suddenly Sary was pulling at his arm. She wasn't any higher than his chest but was two years older, Mam and Pap told her to take care of her "little" brother. "You leave Abe be," she told Simms, "he ain't a-botherin' you."
"Well what's he doin' then?"
Don't say! But Sary was a girl and a girl must answer—as if explaining could make a thing right. "He's puzzlin' his letters is all!" Her apple cheeks were flushed. There was a chance she might start blubbering!
Simms sneered, "Oh yes? Well what's so all-mighty puzzlin'?" Inside he was all a-glee. Now Abe had to keep shet or else back his sister: if he did the one Simms could call him pucker-ass, and if the other Simms would whup him.
And Abe knew it. He ought to have gone for Simms right off, because there wasn't but one way such a thing could end. But his sister hanging on his arm distracted him—so he found himself doing the worst thing of all: explaining how he was just trying to figure how come his Mam only needed the one letter X to write her name.
Simms bugged out his eyes. "Lincoln, if you ain't a prize eejit! Your Mam signs an X 'cause she can't read!"
Abe ripped his arm out of Sary's grip and balled his fist at Simms. "You swaller that or I'll make you!" Simms turned his head and grinned victoriously at the boys ganged up behind him ...
... and quicker than thinking Abe went for him, head down arms swinging, caught Simms flush and knocked him sprawling and pounced on him flailing with his long bony arms and knuckly fists. Simms was down before he knew it was a fight, breath gone and no time to catch it. They rolled in the dust, everyone yelling, Abe wanted to pound Simms's face but couldn't get at it.
For Simms it was like fighting a giant spider or clawing out of bramble-vines. Abe wasn't half his age and was built like a beanpole but he also was only half a head shorter and his arms longer. Simms couldn't get loose, he was on his back and a black wave of terror and shame told him he was whupped by a seven-year brat ...
While Abe was plunged headfirst in blood and fire, his eyes burning, his body a-swim in it, every part of him alive, punching grappling kicking, never-ever had he felt so much power in himself, clawing and grappling with arms and legs like a dog tearing into a shoat ...
A blast of sudden ice-wet paralyzed him—a bucket of water, and Master Riney's hand jerking him up by the scruff of his shirt. The water drenched the red fire and strength out of his arms and legs but the last of it still burned in his head and he yelled, "She can too read!"
He got willow-switched on his rump and spent that afternoon sitting sore-butt in the corner with his back to the lesson. But no shame in that. Even Master Riney knew you had to fight, though you weren't supposed to. And he had to switch you for it regardless: that was the rules. At least I whupped Simms. He'd heard the boys talking after: That Lincoln, he sure is a wildcat! But at the same time he wasn't sure he'd whupped. What Simms said about his Mam stayed said.
But afterwards Mr. Riney told Abe, quiet so no one else heard: "So your Ma can read. If you'll mind me, I'll teach you how: then you can read to her, if you like."
Well, he made a go of it. Found pieces he knew she'd like, Bible pieces, and read them to her. But somehow his reading was always small next to hers. He'd puzzle out some little piece of Joseph or Moses, hauling the words in slow, and straining to lay them out one after another the right way, and when he was done he'd only just got Moses born or Joseph sold. Whereas when Mam read those stories they just run and flowed and spread out, they were as much about you and your doings as they were about Moses and Joseph and the rest.
So he picked out things to read that would get her started, Bible pieces from the Preceptor at first, then new things from the other books Mr. Riney let him read in. This was how he came to learn about Adam and the apple tree.
It started with a verse from his Speller that he didn't understand: "In Adam's fall, we sinn'd all." Adam was Bible, so it was odd in the first place to find him in the Speller. And there was no making out how Adam's falling was Abe's fault. To Abe's surprise, Mam was upset by his question. "Maybe I have give you the Gospel too easy a way!"
Then she told him: How Adam was the first man God made, and put him in the Garden with all good things, and a wife, only he must not eat the fruit of a certain tree, for it would give him knowledge. And how the serpent tempted Eve and made her eat the apple; and she liked it and give Adam some (which showed she warn't close), and Adam et, and he liked it. Then how the Lord come down angry, burnt out the Garden, drove the two out into the woods, nekkid and punished, the man to earn bread by his sweat, the woman to bear children in pains, and all of them now and again to get bit by serpents.
Well what was it to do with him?
Mam took a breath, and explained: How all people born was children of the children of Adam, blood of his blood. And the curse come down on them too, in their blood, same as if it was them et the apple that was forbid: sweat, and pain, and bit by serpents.
Abe puzzled that over. It didn't set right. It was all right for Mr. Riney to punish him for fighting Simms: whupping gets whupping. But if he'd birched Abe afore he done it—or birched Sary just for being Abe's sister ...
But when Abe said that Mam got scared. Not angry, which would have been bad enough, but afraid. "Shush now, honey! Don't say another word." Then: "I know," she said soft, "I know it seems hard. But we're in the hands o' the Lord. It's His world. There can't anything come that ain't accordin' to His will."
So he didn't ask her any more. But if the Lord didn't want his tree bothered with, why didn't he just give Adam a different spirit? or a different wife? Why not just keep the serpents out of it? How can you blame someone when you yourself have fixed it so he is bound to do a wrong thing? It seemed like meanness.
On a cold day in deep winter, as he was starting for school, Mam gave him a dried apple out of their store. "Sister Cam'ell `minded me, Abe—last week was your birthday!" Her eyes were a little sad, though she still smiled for him. "I lost track o' days since we don't go to Meetin' ..."
They'd stopped on account of Pap getting into an argument with the Preacher about niggers. Pap said the way he larned Bible, a man was to earn his bread in the sweat of his own brow not some nigger's, and the Preacher said ... but it didn't matter what the Preacher said. Pap's own father had quit Virginny on account it was pizened with the Thing, and Pap was danged if he'd put up with It in Knob Crick. Abe didn't mind not going to Meeting, but it made Mam sorrowful.
At school Mr. Riney asked them whose birthday did they think it was. The taste of dried apple was in his mouth, so without thinking he said, "Mine!"—and got tee-heed and haw-hawed to a fare-thee-well, which made him mad so he said, "It is too—last week, anyways!" Mr. Riney made him hush.
Whose birthday it was, was George Washington's. "In Virginia," said Mr. Riney, "this day is a holiday, with the day of our nation's independence and the day of our Lord's birth." Then he told them about the Great Washington: there was a lot of it, some read out of a book and some Mr. Riney had got by heart. How when he wasn't but a boy Washington was marked for great things, by his good character and how he told the truth. How one time, in his father's garden, he cut down a kind of tree that was forbid to him, even to eat of its fruit.
But Washington—the Great Washington—wasn't blamed for it like Adam, and all the rest of us after him! No, because he didn't eat no fruit, but cut the thing down with his ax and stood up bold as ...
But now the story was changing again, Washington was growing tall and strong, and he went out like Moses to burn the bushes of the wilderness—when suddenly Britishers come across the ocean, "to take away our liberties and make us slaves ..."
... which is niggers: Britishers making us niggers like the brothers done Joseph and the Egypts done the Children of Isril, so if anyone was Moses this time it was ...
"Washington took command of the American armies, fought the Britishers and ..."
Washington! Washington swinging his ax two-handed, driving the Britishers and their chariots into the ocean and breaking the sea on them ...
"But his work was not finished. It was Washington, and the Founding Fathers, who gave us our Constitution, our Republican Form of Government ..."
... which was the Ten Commandments! and brung them down the burning mountain to the people—only this time they wasn't Isril they was
"... the United States of America!"
... And if that was so, they were in the Promised Land right now! Right here in Knob Crick Kentucky the United States America the World! And if that was so, then ...
But after Washington United the States there come trouble amongst the people: some wanted to bust up the nation and leave on account of ...
Abe, figuring furiously, nodded as he squared this difficulty with Moses's Gold Calf troubles.
But no! The Americans' trouble was still slavery: somehow the Americans hadn't left their slavery behind in Egypt or wherever, but had took it along with them—or anyway half of them did. So the half that was free said to let 'em all go, but the first lot said well we'll just break the Meeting if we can't get our rights ...
"Abraham," said Mr. Riney, "do you have a question?"
Abe discovered he had stood up out of his place. But Mr. Riney looked friendly so he spoke: "I thought they come ... I thought he brung them to Promise Land to git shet of slav'ry. Wasn't that why he drownded the Britishers?" He never heard the tee-hee and haw-haw, his eyes fixed hard on Mr. Riney's face.
Who got the heart of the question, although there was something mixed up about the asking Riney couldn't see how to untangle. But that was no never-mind: this was the hard question, the one you couldn't ever get away from in this country, no matter that better and wiser men had done their best to put it where it could do no harm.
So he told Abe the difference lay in the nature of the people involved. That what the Britishers wanted for slaves was freeborn people like ourselves, that had the right to be free by the nature of what the Lord made them. But the slaves that were owned by the people of the United States—owned by Washington himself!—they were of the Ethiopian race, "This people among them, of strange blood, with whom it was forbidden to mingle ..."
"Niggers!" yelled Simms. "You mean they's jest niggers!"
"Simms!" Mr. Riney rapped. "I won't have you talking low in this school!"
Abe caught, on the fly, the useful information that it was low to say niggers.
Mr. Riney said the slaves of the United States, which it wasn't wrong to hold, was Eth'opians, children of "that unfortunate race of Ham," condemned forever to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, servants to their brothers ...
But there was that same problem again, about Adam and his children. For if the "Unfortunate Race" never done it, then why should they be punished for it by becoming niggers? And how could a thing that was wrong for one man to do be right when another man done it?
Well, Mr. Riney says because some is born to it: which was like what Mam said about Adam's fall. Yet Abe and Sary, and Pap and Mam too, done their share and more of chopping wood and hauling water—did that make them niggers? did they catch the curse of Ham on top of Adam's?
The more he thought the more tangled it become. Now he understood why Pap was down on niggers: for soon as That Unfortunate Race showed up everything turned backside front, Washington and the Americans start acting like Egyptians—and doing it in the Promise Land where they themselves run to get free, so if it warn't for the honey and milk you probably after a while couldn't have told it from Egypt the Old World or even Virg ...
Master Riney was asking him a question. Abe was embarrassed. Somehow his too-fast thinking had stood him up out of his place again.
"Abe," said Mr. Riney, "did you want to tell us what Washington did—when he saw the factions were set on breaking up the Union of the States?"
Abe searched back in his mind: all the while he had been thinking so hard about Moses and Washington and the Unfortunate Race, Mr. Riney had gone on talking, so now Abe reached back to try and find what it was he'd been saying, but it kept slipping through like water between his fingers: so he reached back more and thought about what kind of man Washington was, and what he would do—
"He took the law in his hands, and broke the tables on their heads!"
Well, it wasn't all that funny, not as funny as Simms and the rest made out. Bible and history weren't all that different, no more so than father and son. If Washington wasn't exactly Moses, they were like enough that it ought to signify something. But before Abe could work that notion up to a question the season turned, and Pap took him out of school to help with planting. All the time they were plowing and dropping seed, Abe's head was pestered with questions that swarmed like skeeters and itched him frantic—and nothing to scratch himself on but Pap, which was always risky.
He waited till Pap got seed in the ground, and so was in a peaceful mood. Then, one afternoon when he'd helped Pap split oak billets for a barrel, he asked him: "Pap, if it was Moses discovered Isril, and Columbus discovered America, and Dan'l Boone discovered Kentuck, then was it you discovered Knob Crick?"
Pap snorted in a kind of laughing way and said, "Well I sure run the lines of this claim."
"Then how come we ain't wrote down in the book that way?"
"It's wrote down at the Land Office. That's all the writin' down it wants." He squinted at Abe: "What book is it you're worryin' at?"
No way round it now! "The one at school."
Pap squinted. "I reckon there's a lot ain't in that book." He was satisfied to be displeased. "There was Lincolns come over the mountains with Dan'l Boone. Your Grandpa Abraham, that you're named after, he come."
"Did he discover Kentuck too?"
"Well, if he didn't discover it, he come jest after. Sold out a seven-hunderd-acre farm in Virginny and follered Boone and Harrod over the mountains."
"Why'd he sell out?"
"Cause it's better land in Kentuck. And easy terms. Back then she warn't so crowded up with Virginians, lawyers, and niggers that a man must go to law to hold his claim."
"Pap! Did you come along with Dan'l Boone and them ...?"
"No," said Pap. "I was born this side the mountains. Never been in Virginny in my life." He spat against the stack of barrel-staves. "Never goin', neither. But your Uncles Mordecai and Josiah come with him. Josiah jest a baby when they first come, and Mordecai warn't no older'n what you be." He looked at Abe thoughtfully. "You even favor him some around the eyes." Pap looked far off, his eyes searching although his voice kept the practiced singsong of this story he had told often enough at the tavern: "Yep: sold out and come to Kentuck—ever'thing they owned in two wagons. Pa cleared the land, Mordecai helpin'. Claimed three big farms—six hunderd acres, and four hunderd and two hunderd." Something turned in Pap, he looked like he had bit something bitter. "Prob'ly meant to give one to each son. But he was killed afore he got the chance."
"Who was it killed him, Pap? The lawyers, the niggers, or the Injuns?"
Pap blinked and looked at Abe, then threw back his head and laughed fit to bust. Abe didn't see what was funny, though he was glad for Pap's good mood. Pap rumpled Abe's bristly black hair: "Injuns, niggers, or lawyers! I will remember that!" He would tell it next time he was to Elizabethtown, at Bush's Ordinary. He looked at his son, happy and a little grateful. He begun to tell his tale a little showy, like it was to please the men at the tavern.
"I warn't even your age," he said. "I was out front o' the cabin, jest a baby playin' with some truck or other my Ma give me, watchin' Pa split rails—when all a sudden, pow! goes a musket-shot, then a sound like an ax chunkin' in soft wood. I look up, don't see my Pappy. Don't see nothin', tall grass in my face. So I git up on my legs, go over where Pappy is lyin' lookin' up out the grass, nothin' in his eyes but the shine of the sky. There was a red gush down the front of his shirt, I never knowed it was his blood—never knowed to be scairt, but set down next to him to figger what happened.
"Then I hear somethin' snakin' through the grass, rustlin' closer and closer.
"All a sudden—a face pops out not ten feet from me! I near jumped out my skin, never see sech a face in my life: black painted to the eyes and blood-red above, top of his head peeled except a roach of gummed-up hair. Big silver medal on a chain 'round his neck. Britishers, up at Detroit, they used to give Injuns medals for Kentucky scalps.
"And then he seen me!
"His eyes, they kind o' bulged. He showed his teeth. Then he crouched up, knife in his right hand musket in his left, he come for me with a rush. I was froze, my eyes jest froze to that big silver medal swingin' 'cross the middle of his chest, and jest then CRACK!" Abe jumped as Pap banged his hands together.
Pap grinned: "Injun stands up stark—like he run into a wall—then topples like cut timber, bang, right in front of me. Knife in his hand warn't no further than I am from you."
Pap was pleased with his effect: Abe was spellbound, mouth open. "What done it, Pap?"
"Well—it was your Uncle Mordecai." Pap made a wry face. "He ain't much of a brother and never was, but he's a cool hand with a rifle. He warn't but sixteen then, in the cabin when he heared the shot. Quicker'n you could think he snatched Pa's long rifle and took his stand inside the door. Here come the Injun, crawlin' out the woods. But where Mordecai stands he can't get a bead on him. Knows he won't get but one shot, so he waits. Then the Injun makes his rush, Mordecai catches the swing of that silver bangle, and fast as lookin' he pulls the trigger—crack! Drills the Injun clean through the heart."
Abe could see it: Uncle Mordecai kilt that Injun dead. And Pap says I got his eye. He raised his dream rifle and popped that Injun plumb through his big silver medal. The rifle smoke drifted over the grass. The echo of the gunshot faded.
|Book I: My Home Is over Jordan|
|Chapter 1 "In Adam's Fall||"||3|
|Chapter 2 Uncle Mordecai||21|
|Book II: The War Against the Trees|
|Chapter 3 The Clearing||37|
|Chapter 4 The Pigeon Massacre||55|
|Chapter 5 The Bear||75|
|Chapter 6 Milk-Sick||95|
|Book III: The Kingdom of Pap|
|Chapter 7 Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln||109|
|Chapter 8 Hiring Out||129|
|Chapter 9 Tom Lincoln's Boy||143|
|Book IV: The Landing|
|Chapter 10 The Ark of Philanthropy||161|
|Chapter 11 The Judge||181|
|Book V: Father of Waters|
|Chapter 12 The Old Man||205|
|Chapter 13 Queen of the Nile||227|
|Chapter 14 The Greatest Actor in the English-Speaking|
|Chapter 15 The Crossroads||269|
|Chapter 16 The Dead Reaches||285|
|Chapter 17 The Scrootch-Owl||303|
|Chapter 18 The Trial||329|
|Chapter 19 City upon a Hill||345|
|Chapter 20 BurningBush||363|
|Chapter 21 Theatre d'Orleans||381|
|Chapter 22 The Bottom of the River||397|
|Chapter 23 Homecoming||415|
|Book VI: The Republic|
|Chapter 24 New Salem||427|
|Chapter 25 The Candidate||455|
Posted August 7, 2004
Although the author captured my interest enough to continue reading the novel, I felt as though the story was really long and drawn-out. Read it if you want a mediocre read to aid your sleep.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2000
Slotkin's book gives us Lincoln as he seems to have really been--down to earth, subject to any of the emotions and longings that any other human being is, and filled by an ambition that is just beginning to heat up in the back of his mind. This book is extremely well written and descriptive; it makes you feel as though you know Lincoln personally. Being a Lincoln fan myself, I was overjoyed when I picked up this book and could not put it down. I suggest to Mr. Slotkin that he continue in his Lincoln writings--give us a 'part 2' and 'part 3' perhaps, that leads us into his Sprinfield and White House days? That would be worth waiting for!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 12, 2009
No text was provided for this review.