It's been a "Licoln-ish" week for us. Not only have we been reading the D'Aulaire biography, but D. brought home Lincoln Logs as a special present for the sweet girl. Hooray, our own Kentucky cabins, right on the living room rug!
I felt like I should add a caveat to my previous post about the D'Aulaire biography of Lincoln. We finished it today, and I must say that the sweet girl really enjoyed it. She was especially taken with a few of the illustrations, most notably the one of baby Abraham on a bearskin rug in a log cabin, surrounded by his parents and older sister Sally (anything to do with babies is a complete fascination for her right now). We also liked the end paper maps which showed Lincoln's geographical journeyings from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, with appropriate markers showing the direction of New Orleans (where he spent some time ferrying boats) and Washington, D.C., where he obviously spent a good deal of time as president of the U.S.
But I ended up with mixed feelings about the book. My minor concern was that it painted Lincoln in such glowing, ideal terms that he seemed more "saint-like" than I expected (and let's face it, even 'saints' are real, every-day people who sometimes make mistakes). I do find him a deeply admirable man, and I want S. to learn to value what's worthy and lasting in a person's life. I also found it odd that the book ended with the reunion of the North and South, but didn't go on to tell about the very sad ending of Lincoln's own life. Considering the book started with his birth, I expected it to move all the way through the story and onto his death. Yes, it's tragic and sad and hard to understand, but it's an important part of Lincoln's story and of our country's history. His death also highlights the cost of some of the work people do for justice. I can't fathom why the authors didn't include at least a mention of his death, in an afterword if not in the text itself, unless they were so concerned about having a "happy ending" in a children's book. Tell the truth, tell it simply, tell it well. I think that would be my approach here.
The other major concern I had was some of the later illustrations. When Lincoln first encounters a slave market in New Orleans, and then later when he meets some black citizens thanking him for what he did to free the slaves, the African-Americans are portrayed very stereotypically. This seems painfully shameful given the excellent details in the drawings of Lincoln himself and of his family and friends. The African-American faces reminded me of black dolls that children might have played with back when this story was written, each of them round and simple and dark without the wonderful details of character we see in Lincoln's face. It made me want to cry out to the artists (long gone, I'm sure) that they should have looked long and observed better so they could have drawn the beautiful humanity in their brothers and sisters of other races (the one Native American character doesn't fare much better).
What an odd and strange legacy we Americans have, so mixed. So much of our history is rich and worth studying, and yet it seems in all corners, even in children's books (we've encountered it here, we've encountered it in Laura Ingalls Wilder) you see the early and lasting effects of racism on people's thoughts and imaginations. I'm NOT (please hear me here) calling Wilder a racist. Her books do report some painful words and actions of some of the adults in her life when she was a child in ways that recall those times truthfully, and yet so many other scenes in her books (which were, after all, written many years later) seem to poignantly undermine them. One thinks of the long, sad trail of "Indians" that the Ingalls watch leaving the Praire, and the way Laura can't take her eyes off of the face of the little baby riding on his mother's back. We are made to feel the sadness and yes, the injustice of that moment, even if the squatting of white settlers like Pa and Ma were part of the problem, and part of what forced the Indians out of their land. The books are worth reading, not only for their ability to capture the pioneer experience of European settlers in this country, but for the very uncomfortable truths they point to about the fact that other people were here first and we pushed them out.
Well, I've wandered far afield...though perhaps not too far, as we celebrate Wilder's birthday in February as well (it was the 7th!).
But I need to keep thinking and wrestling and thinking some more about how to present American history, in all its wonders and all its mess, to the sweet girl. If I wonder aloud here from time to time, don't be surprised.
In the meantime, does anyone know of a more recent biography of Lincoln for young people in the 5-10 age range? I'd love to hear recommendations.