In my continuing run through the Penguin Lives Series, I have just finished Abraham Lincoln. What stuck me as I was reading was the similarities between Lincoln and Churchill. Like Churchill, Lincoln's was a hero not because he never failed but because at a crucial moment in history his character made all the difference.
This particular Penguin Life is interesting because Thomas Keneally, a novelist living in Aulstralia, tells it in straight narative form. Keneally is most famous for his novel Schindler's Ark that inspired the film Schindler's List. It is interesting to read a novelist's take on Lincoln's life. Obviously Lincoln's life and times were complex and controversial and so it must have been difficult to tell the story in less than two hundred pages. That Keneally attempts it at all is one of the reasons I like the Penguin Lives series in the first place. Massive biographies and studies of Lincoln, the Civil War, and nineteenth century politics can be quite daunting. A short but fast paced overview of this towering figure is of great value.
That said Keneally came up a bit short in parts. Now I am not a Lincoln scholar or even a person that familiar with the time period. Rather, I tried to judge the writing and the organization. The writing is fair overall but at times it seemed forced; like the author is unsure if this is a novel or a history book. Keneally tries to bring in some trivial points to give you a flavor of the time. He frequently mentions the wether on a particular day, for example, even though it bears no relation to the event. It seems odd to mention the fact that it was icy when Lincoln traveled to the Illinois statehouse to take his seat as representative. He also lacks a rhythm when describing Lincoln's early life, the story seems to jump around and Keneally doesn't chart the time frame very well.
The story picks up quite a bit, however, as Lincoln begins to pursue the Presidency in earnest. From the point at which being elected president becomes a real possibility the book picks up pace and flows nicely. The meat of the book is really an enjoyable read. You can follow the press of events as Lincoln becomes president and civil war looms. You read in wonder the pressure and responsibilities that are thrust upon Lincoln's shoulders and can't believe the people he had to put up with in the course of the most dangerous time in American history since the revolutionary war. The political infighting and treachery; the personal difficulties and tragedies; and the violent and devastating events of the Civil War make for an exciting and gripping story - all the more so as they are true.