It's hard to imagine a more potent cocktail than the one historian Richard Slotkin sets himself to mixing in this, his second novel. "Abe" uses the story of Huckleberry Finn, boy hero of the quintessential American novel, to imagine the coming of age of Abraham Lincoln, the most mythopoeic man in our national history. Having determined to wrestle two giants at once, Slotkin miraculously pulls it off; I can't recall the last time I finished a novel wishing, as I did after this one, for more. The days of old-fashioned frontier tall tales may be long gone, but here's a feat to set the literati marveling.
Little is known about Lincoln's childhood and early youth (the man himself, when asked about these experiences, dismissed them as typical of "the annals of the poor"), but the facts -- even the documented ones -- sound just like legends. He was prodigiously strong, able to hold out an ax with both arms straight and unwavering for the count of a hundred. And he was a wit; people from around the town of Pigeon Creek, Ind., still memorized his satirical ballad "The Chronicles of Reuben" (a nuptial farce sending up a couple of local jerks) years after he'd left. There's a moment in "Abe" when the boy shoots a wild turkey at a time when his family doesn't need the meat, and he is immediately stricken with pity and guilt. ("I'm sorry I killed you for nothing.") This turning point feels so intimate that surely it must be part of the "imaginative re-creation" Slotkin describes the bulk of his book as? Nope. Lincoln said that his lifelong soft spot for animals began with the death of that unfortunate bird.
What does appear to be highly fictionalized is the hero's epic flatboat journey down the Mississippi. (Lincoln made two such trips, which Slotkin merges.) Abe's progress down the river, like Huck's, transforms him morally, and here the novel applies itself to the central mystery of Lincoln's early life: How did a young man raised amid the entrenched prejudices of 19th century poor-white society break through to greater understanding? Along the river Abe encounters the charismatic utopian abolitionist Frances Wright, a supposedly benevolent plantation owner, a terrifying band of vigilante "Regulators" and various repellent species of pragmatist. But his deeper education comes via his encounter with a slave, Sephus, whom he rescues from the river early on and who joins the crew. By the time Abe lays eyes on the slave markets of New Orleans, he is primed to comprehend their horrors.
Until that point, though, Slotkin doesn't stint in depicting Abe's reflexive racism or the importance to his battered pride of the distinction between lumpen white and black. The young man's natural friendliness is at constant war with his sense that, though not much better off than a slave himself, he is meant for better things than butchering hogs to pay his father's debts. Even the episodes of pure, ripping adventure during the trip down the river -- the midnight ambushes, the busted levees, the shipwrecks -- bend Abe to his appointed lesson. He and Sephus may be the lowliest members of the flatboat's crew, but they are by far the smartest, the bravest, the most resourceful and, he eventually learns, the most honorable.
This slow enlightenment makes the simple pleasures of Slotkin's storytelling (at times, as in a prank with a swamp owl, worthy of Twain himself) all the more savory. Add to that the kind of droll, precise fictional touches you just don't expect from a cultural historian. Here's Abe's dog, feinting after a "dead" bear that suddenly turns out to be anything but:
Jack never stopped his high frenzied yapping: but waited till the bear's rear end disappeared round the rocks then went for him -- only as far as the edge of the rocks -- and told him off for good and all. Whuff! he shook himself all over. That was one bear you'd never hear from again! Then he trotted back to Abe on his stiff jaunty little legs.
A most decidedly doggy little portrait, and tremendously endearing. So is Slotkin's Abe, for all his titanic inner struggles, his dark rages and his great destiny. The novelist makes you feel how it was that people couldn't resist the young man despite his being fantastically ugly, often brooding and much smarter than they were. Perhaps it was his laugh that did it: "He'd spread out a smile that would just tear his face up and start over -- and when he laughed he'd wrinkle up his big nose and curl his upper lip to show teeth and gums like an old horse, haw! haw! haw! you laugh twice as hard just to see him."
Whatever we'd like to believe, history tells us that poverty and oppression tend to make people mean and small, not noble. Lincoln was one of the rare ones to take a higher path. For that, his heritage belongs to the whole of humanity, not just Americans. With this novel, Slotkin wipes the cosmetic sheen of patriotism off Abe's face, blows away the dust of portentous history and gives him back to us, fresh.