Thursday, March 7, 2013

Abe Lincoln's Dream

Abraham Lincoln has been the topic of much discussion lately. Of course, there was the multiple-Oscar nominated movie, with its Oscar-winning best actor.  I've already blogged about Looking for Lincoln, a book which gave facts about Abraham Lincoln a new, postmodern twist.  And here at the Murray house, Abraham Lincoln has taken on a great deal of importance since Presidents' Day.  Frances' teacher told her Kindergarten class some of Lincoln's biography, and she's been talking about him ever since.  We see a ramshackle wooden shed on the side of the freeway, and that is Lincoln's childhood log cabin home.  I've heard many times that his mother died when he was nine years old.  A few days ago, we were on our way home from dinner, and Gloria wanted me to turn on the car's interior light so she could color.  I explained that it was against the law, and Frances piped up and asked whether Abraham Lincoln made that law too.  Clearly, Abraham Lincoln is an important historical figure to Frances!

This picture book begins with the dogs.  The narrator mentions that three of last century's presidential dogs would not enter "that room".  The afterword explains that "that room" was the Lincoln Bedroom.  The narrator goes on to say that people saw his ghost on February 12th, but everyone was wearing stovepipe hats and beards (although astute readers will easily pick out the ghost peering out from behind a curtain).  Then a young girl named Quincy slips away from her school tour and sees the ghost of Abraham Lincoln poring over the Gettysburg Address.  They really see and acknowledge each other.  He tells her a couple of corny jokes and she politely laughs.  Lincoln admits during their conversation that he continues to have the same dream, over and over again: "It's always the same.  I'm on a ship sailing repeatedly for some shore I know not where."  Lincoln has been pacing through the White House while they've talked, with Quincy scrambling to catch up with his long legs.  He apologizes for being so restless, but tells her "...there was so much to do beyond 1865.  Our union was so fragile, so uncertain.  Like that ship on the rocky sea."  Quincy (and the reader) realizes that Lincoln has stayed because he doesn't know how things have turned out in history.  Quincy takes Abraham Lincoln on a flight around the world (Lincoln doing the flying), giving him updates along the way.  Later that night, the narrator says, Quincy herself has a dream.  "She dreamed of a man, a tall man in black, on a boat moving rapidly toward the rising sun."  It is, of course, Abraham Lincoln, with his worries and burdens now lightened, who is sailing off towards the sun.

This book is clever in a number of ways.  One of the ways I find it most clever is very subtle, and in fact took me several readings to discover and appreciate.  The book is titled Abe Lincoln's Dream, but his name is never mentioned in the text.  The President is referred to only as "he", or once as "the ghost", although he is described in all the traditional ways we've come to associate with Lincoln: the stovepipe hat and beard, tall, dressed in black.  The narrator comments the first time Quincy sees Lincoln: "He was dressed in black from hat to boot, but she wasn't frightened; he had a long face that made her feel sorry for him."  These descriptions are all things we know about Lincoln.  And of course, there are other textual references to his history as President.  The jokes, the references to 1865, his admiration of the Gettysburg Address and his question about whether the states are united all point to his identity without Smith having to name him at all.  And because of the preponderance of textual and illustrative clues, I can't help but wonder how many readers actually fail to notice that the ghost is unnamed.

Of course, Lane Smith's illustrations also help identify Lincoln.  Smith does an incredible job of walking the fine line between evoking the actual man himself and creating a character for this story.  His tall black stovepipe hat, his grasshopper-like legs and neatly trimmed beard all echo the portraits of Abraham Lincoln we can all call to mind.  The facial expressions, though, are pure Lane Smith.  My favorite one is when Abraham Lincoln throws his hand to his forehead, eyes closed, head bent back in a dramatic fashion.  The text at that moment is serious, but the look makes readers smile.  Similar to John, Paul, George & Ben, Smith takes a historical figure and pokes a little fun at him.  There is a lightness to much of this book that contradicts the sadness in Lincoln's long face.

Lane Smith is comfortable creating in that gray area between fact and fiction.  As I mentioned previously, the first pages of the book include several dogs owned by other presidents.  Smith cites each of the dogs, their Presidents(and which President they were), giving authenticity to the picture book.  But the most stunning fact of all is the fact that the morning of his assassination, Smith tells us, President Lincoln told members of his cabinet of a disturbing dream he'd had - the one he described in the text to Quincy.  It is an incredible connection for readers and re-emphasizes the fact that this dream kept the fictional character trapped in the Executive Mansion all these years.  It is truly an amazing book - enough fact to ground readers in information, enough fancy to help readers soar.  All I could wish for were some citations for Smith's afterword, but really it feels authentic without that information.  While this is a picture book, and a story, it is based in fact, and again straddles that gray area in between. 

As always, the book design (done by Lane Smith's wife, Molly Leach) is impeccable.  The book is a mix of historical and modern touches.  Quincy, Lincoln and the narrator all speak in different fonts which adds to the interest on each page.  But all of the fonts are clean and crisp, so the page never feels too cluttered, even with all three speaking on the same page.

I think the last thing I would like to mention about this book is its audience.  While Frances, a kindergartener, was interested in this book, I believe this book also rewards a more sophisticated, older reader.  This is the kind of book that appeals to Kindergarteners with its basic narrative thread.  They would enjoy Lincoln's silly, old-fashioned jokes.  A fifth grader would have learned more about Lincoln and the history of the United States and could appreciate some of the things  that aren't said here.  And a high schooler would also be familiar with the history here, and would not feel as if the narrator talked down to them.  It's a flexible, entertaining book, good for multiple levels and audiences.  I wish I had time to compare it to other books with characters flying through the sky, seeing the world around them, such as Tar Beach.  There are lots of ideas that come out of a well-written book,  Pick this one up, not to learn more about the facts of Lincoln's life, but to experience history through his eyes.

Abe Lincoln's Dream.  Lane Smith.  Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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