Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Author finds new approach for Lincoln story

Historical novel delves into stepmother’s influence on the president

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    Author Jeff Oppenheimer.

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Imagine being able to sit down and interview someone intimately familiar with a major historical figure — a father, a mother, a sister, a friend. Which historical figure would you choose? Jesus? Napoleon? Abraham Lincoln?

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For Pennsylvania author Jeff Oppenheimer the choice seemed obvious with this year’s sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. The resulting book, That Nation Might Live (Amazon, $7.33), is a mash-up of historical novel and biography, focusing not on Lincoln’s historical deeds or his death, but on his childhood as recounted by his aging stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, who married Lincoln’s father, Tom, after the death of his first wife, Nancy Hanks.

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Author Jeff Oppenheimer.

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The people and incidents recounted are based in historical fact. The interviewer is William H. Herndon, a former law partner of Lincoln, who did indeed track down his old friend’s stepmother after the 16th president’s death in 1865. Herndon was researching his own book about Lincoln (published in 1889), and Oppenheimer used notes from that interview — along with myriad other historical research — to fashion a clever work that is part deposition, part historical remembrance.

We caught up with Oppenheimer recently to ask about the challenges of writing or rewriting history.

Q: Why are we still fascinated with Lincoln and his assassination 150 years later?

A: I think most of us appreciate that the modern, multicultural America we know and enjoy, though still imperfect, is owed to the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln. I try not to focus too much on the assassination, as it was a cowardly and dastardly act unworthy of aggrandizement. It must be said that Lincoln dying a martyr only adds to his legend.

Q: How much research went into your novel? Are all the people and historical instances in the book accurate?

A: It was roughly 10 years ago when I first recognized the untold story of Lincoln’s stepmother’s influence on the future president. I sought every book I could find on Lincoln’s youth. The process began at the local library, working with a researcher to track down any new titles I discovered in the indexes. Eventually I closed the loop on the information available about Lincoln’s youth.

By the time I was ready to write, the development of Google Books aided in the actual writing. I chose a deposition format to recreate the afternoon Lincoln’s longtime friend and law partner, William H. Herndon, interviewed Lincoln’s elderly stepmother. This made sense, Herndon being an attorney, and it would authenticate to the reader his extensive note-taking. The hyper-links in the indexes helped me find some engaging first-person witness to the life of Lincoln.

Q: If you could meet and talk with any of these historical figures besides Lincoln, who would it be?

A: I would certainly enjoy an afternoon with Lincoln’s stepmother, none other than Mrs. Sarah Bush Lincoln. My hope is the reader feels they’re in the presence of a woman capable of turning a lost boy into Abraham Lincoln. Just how she did it should be the delightful surprise. Sarah Bush Lincoln was loved and respected by all, and known for her wit, wisdom, and charm. When I undertook this book I accepted responsibility, and I hope I’ve done her justice.

Q: Do you have any Toledo connection?

A: I am from Columbus and have had the opportunity to visit Toledo on several occasions. Most of my memories are baseball related. I recall going to Mud Hens games, and when I was older we played some high school games in the area.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction?

A: The first step from actual to recreation is a journey further from perfection. There was an afternoon when Lincoln’s longtime friend and law partner, William H. Herndon, interviewed the martyred President’s aged stepmother. I set out to recreate their day together for the reader, imagining what it was like to be there. Herndon’s own notes gave me a basis for the dialogue and structure, and I had a good understanding of the history to fill the gaps with character revelation, but ultimately the writer turns their back on the photograph to paint a facsimile.

Q: Lincoln talked relatively little about his father. Did you have to fill in a lot of gaps?

A: Lincoln didn’t speak much of his father, but there is plenty known about Tom Lincoln. The gaps were not so much with the history and event of Lincoln’s life. The big gap is in the “Why?” Why didn’t Lincoln speak much of his father?

Lincoln’s relationship with his father, Tom Lincoln, was strained and complex. Tom named his only son after his own father, the first Abraham Lincoln to be cut down unawares by a bullet.

The senior Abraham Lincoln was shot by a Native American while clearing a field on the western frontier of Kentucky. Tom Lincoln was 6 at the time of his father’s death, and happened to be standing next to his father when it happened. Cut loose, young Tom Lincoln was a bit of loner, perhaps without a father figure of his own, he may have gone about the task clumsily. It wasn’t fair to a “whittling type” like Tom Lincoln, that he would be tasked with raising a boy with the uncommon gifts his son possessed. These two factors are my best guess to explain the difficulties experienced between father and son.

Q: What do you most want readers to take away from this book?

A: I’d like readers to feel the life of Lincoln in a page-turning kinda way. The Lincoln story is our story but for many it’s history, and history is boring. I set out for anti-boring, using every tool I could think of to invite readers to enjoy the story. That begins with the narrator, the lovable Mrs. Lincoln. The context is familiar, even universal — the story of a mother and son. The narration isn’t dates and proclamations, but 10 stories told from a rocking chair. The book is only 170 pages and each story is self-contained and concise. Finally, in each story I tried to find the human interest, the tragic losses and the fist-fights.

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