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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 09:38 am

Abe's Molly

The story of Mary Todd Lincoln

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The Emancipator’s Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln By Barbara Hambly, Bantam Books, 2005, 624 pages, $25
Mary Todd Lincoln knew a lot of grief. Her mother died when she was 6. She lost three of her four children and was sitting beside her husband the night he was assassinated. When I picture her I see a woman veiled, dressed in voluminous yards of black silk. Fate and history have not been kind to Mary Lincoln. We’ve all seen the caricatures and the T-shirts: “I’d have to be crazy to go back to Springfield.” Everyone knows Mary Todd Lincoln was crazy. Wasn’t she? Her oldest son, Robert, thought so, and in 1871 he won a court battle to have her declared insane and committed to Bellevue, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Ill. It is here we meet her in Barbara Hambly’s new novel, The Emancipator’s Wife. At 56, Mary was sick, tired, addicted to opiates, and severely depressed — but she still had her trademark spark of rebelliousness. Hambly uses this spark to kindle the fires of Mary’s memory and take the reader back to Mary’s childhood in Lexington, Ky. Mary Todd was what we have come to think of as the typical Southern belle. There were plenty of picnics, parties, ball gowns, and beaux. I have the impression that Hambly has taken a bit of her character for Mary from that iconic daughter of the South Scarlett O’Hara. Mary adored her father, a prominent politician and friend of Henry Clay, but he was often gone from home, and she had an uneasy relationship with her stepmother. But Mary had a fatal flaw in a girl her age: She was smart. A voracious reader, she devoured books and newspapers. She was keenly interested in politics in a time when such an interest wasn’t considered ladylike. She paid attention to how people treated their slaves. So while her friends of 17 and 18 were being married, Mary turned down several suitors, was sent to boarding school, and at the age of 20 traveled to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Ill. Those of us who live in Springfield will have fun seeing our fair city portrayed through Mary’s eyes. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t Lexington. But the new capital city had one thing her hometown didn’t: a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The courtship was rocky, but Hambly has deftly drawn not just a loving marriage but also a loving partnership. Mary was an active partner in fostering her husband’s career at a time when most women were relegated the roles of mother and social hostess. To Mr. Lincoln she was “Molly,” or “Mother.” At 5-foot-2 she was, literally, his little woman. The narrative of the novel moves back and forth in time, as memories do. Along the way we get the richness of history during what is perhaps our country’s most crucial period. And though the novel has the broad sweep of history, it is written from a personal point of view. It succeeded in making me sympathetic to a woman who, at times, was quite trying. It will be interesting to see whether other readers agree, for The Emancipator’s Wife is the novel chosen by this year’s one-book campaign sponsored by several area libraries. Hambly will be coming to Springfield and will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St., in Springfield. She will read from The Emancipator’s Wife, answer questions, and autograph books. Reservations are not necessary for this free program. Free reader’s guides are available at all participating libraries. For more information, visit www.lincolnlibrary.info.
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