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The Lincolns: Candace Fleming’s 2009 BGHB Nonfiction Award Acceptance

fleming_lincolnsLife truly is a lovely circle.

Long ago, I enrolled in a children’s literature class. I wasn’t an education major, but I needed an elective, and children’s literature sounded like an easy A.

I know better now.

On the first day of class, Dr. Wood handed out a long, single-spaced reading list devoted to what she confidently called “the cream of the crop in children’s books.” While she spoke, I skimmed it and knew I had work to do. The first section listed all Newbery Medal-winning books; the second section all Caldecott-winning books; and the third section listed books that had won the Boston  Globe–Horn Book Award.

I have always been a reader, and while I was familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery, the Boston Globe–Horn Book picks surprised me — especially the handful of nonfiction books placed in a category all their own. I’d somehow overlooked these types of books, books that told true stories about our world.

I was just twenty years old — with no writing aspirations — and yet, on that list I discovered books created by people who somehow knew what interested and inspired me before I knew myself. Those books delighted me. They gave me stories to cherish. They incited me to write.

And so it is a glorious, unexpected surprise that I am standing here tonight. It is, indeed, a lovely circle — a circle expanded by the fact that I am here because of one Mr. Lincoln.

Since childhood, Abraham Lincoln has been puttering around in my life, tall and sallow, bright-eyed but sorrowful, appearing here and there in likely and unlikely places, stirring things up, making himself undeniable to me. Before you think I’m crazy, allow me to explain my relationship with him — which runs pretty deep.

I grew up in a small town in central Illinois — the same small town in which Abraham and his parents, Tom and Sarah Lincoln, settled when they moved to Illinois back in 1830. The Lincolns built a log cabin there — a cabin that 140-some years later my friends and I used as a playhouse. Pedaling our bicycles the three miles to the Lincoln log cabin, we climbed the rickety ladder to the dust-filled loft. We clambered around the cool, mildewed root cellar. Then, bored, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled over to Shiloh Cemetery — not much more than a dozen or so graves stuck in the middle of a cornfield — to rest against the cool gray slab of marble marking Tom and Sarah’s final resting place.

Almost every Friday, I spent the night at Emily’s house. Hers was a drafty old Victorian where, legend had it, Lincoln had slept in the 1850s. I could picture him climbing the front stairs and removing his improbable stovepipe hat to greet the lady of the house before crossing the threshold into the parlor. I could picture him in Emily’s room, too, with his too-short nightshirt and his bony, bare toes. I longed to talk with him. More than once we pulled out the Ouija board in an attempt to conjure him up. Despite our pleas to the afterlife, he never came. It didn’t matter. We could hear him anyway. Lincoln’s voice seemed to echo from every bridge, every street corner, every riverbank. He was always present. He was always there.

When I moved to Chicago, Lincoln followed. How could he not? He was in my bones, part of me. I quoted him. I dragged my sons to Civil War sites and museums, stuffing their impressionable young minds full of Lincoln stories. I even suggested that my oldest son, Scott, dress up as Lincoln for Halloween when he was in second grade. Incredibly, he looked exactly like our sixteenth president, only shorter.

When I began writing, I inevitably chose Abraham as my subject. My first-ever published piece was a magazine article titled “Abraham Lincoln Is Not Buried Here,” which appeared in American History Illustrated. I was paid very little for that article, pennies really. You know the kind — the ones with Lincoln’s profile.

* * *

If you visit Lincoln’s Kentucky birthplace, you’ll find a replica of his simple, rough-hewn cabin encased in a classical temple — a facsimile of something genuine enshrined in a marble myth. This is the Lincoln most of us have grown up with. For generations we’ve been taught to be like him — hardworking, honest, principled, self-sacrificing, stalwart, kind to children and animals, a champion of unpopular causes—

Blech! A sermon.

After all, who wants to face a shining, flawless hero (as if such a thing ever existed)? Who wants their history to be antiseptic, burnished, a moral lesson that has little to do with their lives? Too often that’s how history comes to us. It’s a list of facts, a catalog of dates, or, in the case of Lincoln, a flawed, complex man enshrined in a marble temple. The way history is often told, it is easy to believe that no one ever told a lie, or failed a test, or swore in polite company. Young readers ask, “Wasn’t there anybody in history like me?”

My telling of the Lincolns’ lives is my attempt to answer with a resounding “Yes!” More than anything, I wanted to give my readers an Abraham Lincoln who smelled of wood smoke; who told jokes too naughty to repeat in a children’s book (or in an acceptance speech); who suffered from sore feet and loved cats. In short, I wanted them to meet my Abraham Lincoln — my Central Illinois neighbor, my old friend.

How? Through small moments. History is found in small moments. It’s those dinner table conversations and shopping receipts that draw young readers directly into the lives of people from the past. We recognize those moments. Intimate and authentic, small moments allow us to peek into a person’s heart and soul and, in doing so, change what we know about history.

It happened to me. During the course of my research, I came across this small moment. On February 12, 1843, Mary Lincoln, married just three months, baked a small cake, wrapped a few presents, and invited a handful of friends to the Lincolns’ rented rooms at the Globe Tavern to celebrate her husband’s thirty-fourth birthday. Before cutting the cake, she made this loving little speech: “I am so glad you have a birthday. I feel so grateful to your mother.”

I was charmed and bewildered by this moment. Charmed by the almost girlish expression of love; bewildered that it had been spoken by Mary Lincoln. Everyone knew Mary Lincoln was volatile, a shrew, insane. Right? And then I felt the first stirrings of that question that changes everything —  the question that once raised never lets go…

“Huh. Really?”

That small moment forced me to take a fresh look at the historical record; to question it; to delve beneath legend, rumor, and the accepted version to discover the truth as best I could.

So many of these moments startled and amazed me, but none more so than this one. In June 1858 Lincoln prepared to give a speech in front of the Republican convention in Springfield. He’d been thinking about it for weeks, scribbling notes and squirreling them away in his hat. When he finally showed the finished speech to his most trusted friends, they all suggested he cut the opening lines. They were too incendiary, his friends said, too ahead of their time. Then Abraham asked Mary.

I can see him, reading the speech to her as she sits on the horsehair sofa in their front parlor. She has shooed away their boys, taken the pot of chicken-and-dumplings off the stove. Now he has her full attention. And when he finishes, she gives her opinion. She says, Give the speech as written. Keep those opening lines. “It will make you president.”

Lincoln took her advice. He didn’t change a word. Days later, he gave his speech. It began: “A house divided against itself cannot stand…I believe that government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

It takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Those words, those hallowed words, are with us today because of an ordinary couple, living ordinary lives like yours and mine — lives filled with work and bills and children. This is the great improbability of the past — that all history truly begins at home.

I want to thank the committee for honoring my book with an award I’ve held in high esteem for more than two decades. Would one of you call Dr. Wood and ask her to add my name to the reading list?

Thanks also to Patti Ratchford and Lee Wade, those magnificent women of book design who always make me look so good; thanks to Barbara Perris, Emily Seife, and “the girls,” as they’re lovingly called at our house — Adrienne Waintraub, Tracy Lerner, Kelly Galvin — for supporting, promoting, and hauling around that heavy Lincoln tome; and to Eric Rohmann who — since the beginning of this project — has learned goodnaturedly to put up with Lincoln puttering around in his life, too.

Speaking of puttering, last May we went to Washington, D.C., for the rededication of the Lincoln Memorial. We had just passed Ford’s Theatre on our way to the White House and were walking past the grand equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman when my editor, Anne Schwartz, called with the astounding good news of this award. I shouted, cheered, laughed. Abraham and I had come full circle. He was there with me that day — a lovely circle indeed. Thanks, old friend.

And finally, I must thank Anne Schwartz. She is the greatest treasure of my writing life — wise, kind, adventurous, and fiercely creative. This book’s success is as much hers as mine. Again I say, Thanks, old friend.

From the January/February 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Candace Fleming About Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is the winner of the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award for The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and 
the Fall of Imperial Russia and the 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award for The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary (both Schwartz & Wade/Random).

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