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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006 04:00 pm

In defense of Mary

New novel tells the controversial First Lady’s story

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MaryBy Janis Cooke Newman,McAdam Cage, 2006, 650 pages, $26

Mary, a new novel by Janis Cooke Newman, gives Mary Todd Lincoln the opportunity to tell her turbulent life story in a voice that rings true to her bold and unconventional persona.

There’s no shying away from the controversy that followed Mrs. Lincoln for most of her life: Mary tells of the First Lady’s frivolous spending and the backdoor swindling she orchestrates to pay debtors. And it covers unbearable pain, such as when the Lincolns’ son Willie is lost to typhoid. Sometimes the spoiled child, often the whip-smart individualist, Mary lives decadently, for better or worse.

As is usually the case with first-person narratives, the protagonist does her best to justify her actions, such as redecorating the White House with opulent materials during wartime. Mary reasons that she wants the home to be a true symbol of the Union. But in this case, as in other examples of Mary’s extravagances, the First Lady’s arguments are as convincing as, say, Marie Antoinette’s.

The novel’s best vignettes surprisingly don’t come from the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre, the account of which seems rushed and muddled, a sign of Newman’s commitment to a realistic first-person account. The most enthralling moments come during the couple’s courtship, which was initiated and coaxed along by a determined Mary, as well as during the years after President Lincoln’s death, which found the impoverished former First Lady trying to salvage a life and a little dignity.

Newman crafts seamless prose and mimics the formal speech of the day without allowing the text to become stilted. The book flashes between Mary’s time in Bellevue Asylum and her life before being committed, and the glimpses of Mary’s past — from an affair with politico William Wood to a White House séance — are exciting.

Mary’s missteps and misfortunes cover the pages of Newman’s novel, but in the end the portrait that emerges is of a strong, determined, and admirable woman. One imagines that had she really had the opportunity to explain, history would have treated her more kindly.

Janis Cooke Newman hosts a book signing and discussion of Mary at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 3111 S. Veterans Pkwy., 217-546-9440.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.

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