Much Ado About Mary…Todd

May 5, 2008

As excited as I get when school’s about to start up in the fall (although I got more excited when it actually started in the fall and not late summer) I also love when classes are out in the spring. It means I can start forming my summer reading list! I know what you’re thinking and yes, I proudly answer, I am indeed that big a dork.

I decided to start the season off with Mary, a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman (a podcast of Newman reading a selection from the novel can be found here).  I actually got the hardcover as a birthday gift last July, but in the midst of moving to DC, then starting work on the Hill and then starting grad school, I didn’t get a chance to open it until almost a year later.

USA Today‘s review said Mary was the sort of book “you feel a compulsion to urge others to read…” I certainly had that reaction just a few pages in and its a compulsion that’s only grown halfway through the novel. I’ve never been much interested in the undoubted heroes of history. I’d much rather read a complex, contradictory, conflicted story than one in which a saint among men lives a noble life for a noble cause and leaves the world a nobler place than they themselves knew.

Who could possibly be more complex, contradictory and conflicted than Mary Todd Lincoln? She was an astutely political woman in a world where a wife who zealously supported her husband’s candidacy was considered to have “unsexed” herself with ambition.

She was an intensely passionate woman at a time when too much grief, joy or lust could well have one committed for lunacy (especially if one were of the fairer sex). She was the very definition of a Southern belle who happened to ardently support the Union and emancipation. She was the type of woman who could spend days on end comforting horrificly wounded soldiers, seeking no press attention for her actions and then sink her husband into great debt trying to impress Washington society with fancy fans and elaborate gowns.

For me, history has never been a series of facts, dates and obscure figures in black and white photographs. History, especially our history, is a dramatic, heroic, tragic, ironic and romantic epic of people and places thrown together by fate and the events that mixture produces.

Not to sound too much like a book reviewer, but Mary is the perfect book for someone wanting to be as excited as they are educated by even a fictional historical account. There is perhaps no event in American history as encapsulating of all the “ics” listed above than the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln’s story, her fierce, sensitive, sarcastic, intelligence juxtaposed against the War’s narrative, against the narrative of the American slave experience and with a healthy dose of fairly dirrty bedroom action (I love XTube as much as the next guy, but there were definitely times I blushed reading about Mary’s orgasmic fits watching Abe debate Stephen Dogulas) has so far made for an all-together pleasing waste of these oddly weathered late spring days.

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One Response to “Much Ado About Mary…Todd”

  1. alan said

    Great review. Makes one want to read it. Any book that can take as contoversial figure as Mary Todd Lincoln and show her as more than 2-dimensional in a good light is a strong book, in my opinion. Seems people – especially writers – have little ability to do that these days. (Spoken also as a southerner who would have been pro-union and pro-emancipation had I lived then). There were many of that type – Sam Houston, who was governer of Texas at the time of secession, was one. But writers these days largely like to stereotype and then fall into their own pits. Unfortunately today’s politicos seem to be of the same ilk, by and large.

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