An inventive historical thriller that reimagines the tumultuous presidential election of 1860, capturing the people desperately trying to hold the nation together – and those trying to crack it apart.
Abby Kelley Foster arrived in Springfield, Illinois with the fate of the nation on her mind. Her fame as an abolitionist speaker had spread west and she knew that her first speech in the city would make headlines. One of the residents reading those headlines would be none other than the likely next President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln, lawyer and presidential candidate, knew his chances of winning were good. All he had to do was stay above the fray of the slavery debate and appear the voice of compromise until the people cast their votes. The last thing he needed was a fiery abolitionist appearing in town. When her speech sparks violence, leading to her arrest and a high-profile trial, he suspects that his political rivals have conspired against him.
President James Buchanan is one such rival. As his term ends and his political power crumbles, he gathers his advisors at the White House to make one last move that might derail Lincoln’s campaign, steal the election, and throw America into chaos.
A fascinating historical novel and fast-paced political thriller of a nation on the cusp of civil war, The Day Lincoln Lost offers an unexpected window into one of the most consequential elections in our country’s history.
Alternative retellings are a staple of my reading habits, usually in the form of Austenesque fiction. In the case of the novel The Day Lincoln Lost by Charles Rosenberg, I was drawn to the notion of a new history of the election of 1860, the fate of Abraham Lincoln, and by association, the fate of the United States. The inclusion of abolitionist Abby Kelley Foster was also a strong draw.
The Day Lincoln Lost opens strongly, if not heart wrenchingly, as is evidenced in Chapter One, offered below this review. With modern American society once again in the midst of social upheaval over race issues, the injustices that have been perpetuated over the generations are at the forefront of my mind. This made the plight of twelve year-old escaped slave Lucy Battelle that much more riveting, as I was rooting for her liberation and for the failure of her vile pursuers. I very much enjoyed the characters that Rosenberg brings to the story, in particular the aforementioned Lincoln and Foster, but also investigator Annabelle Carter and newspaper journalist Clarence Artemis. Annabelle is on a quest to find Lucy in order to help her, and Clarence searches for the girl as well, in order to gain exclusive information to bolster his fledgling newspaper. I loved Abby Kelley Foster’s spirit, with her unquenchable desire to promote the Abolitionist cause. Abraham Lincoln’s perspective was interesting, as he did not approve of slavery, but as a presidential candidate, did not want to come out too strongly against it, lest he alienate a large portion of the electorate and lose their votes. The balancing act that he was required to achieve must have been so difficult. Assuming that the general facts Rosenberg shares with his readers are true (aside from the reworked narrative), it makes me appreciate our former president even more.
Approximately halfway into the novel, the story shifts to the courtroom. Foster is on trial, accused to inciting a mob that not only allowed Lucy Battelle to escape, but also led to the death of her so-called owner. Mrs. Foster had merely been giving a motivational speech one evening, but the charges against her indicated that her words encouraged the mob’s illegal actions (a charge I found to be dubious at best). A large portion of the book then remained in the courtroom, and my interest level began to drop precipitously. Rosenberg clearly knows the ins and outs of the legal world (his pedigree is very impressive), and his readers are given quite a bit of the procedures and the strategies involved in trying a case such as this one in the 19th century. While I know that much of what was covered in the courtroom was necessary to show why the jury came to the decision that they did, I found this large portion of the book to be tedious and dry. Any time the text returned to actions outside the courtroom (such as with Annabelle and/or Clarence), my interest perked up again. The same can also be said for the story after conclusion of the trial. Not long after the verdict was rendered, the election of 1860 is held. I will withhold the particulars of what happens during that period, but I felt that the plot was mired down in electoral law, vote counting and Constitutional procedures. By the conclusion of the book, I was relieved that it was over.
Author Charles Rosenberg is very talented, and has the capacity to keep this reader interested. When focused on narrative and not legal/electoral procedures, he writes very well. He could stand some improvement in the area of romantic storytelling, but that was not the main focus of this work. I give my hearty approval to the first half of The Day Lincoln Lost. It was very enjoyable. The book as a whole has little to no colorful language, any romantic content is very chaste, and the most difficult material is in the area of the slave trade, which was at times hard to read, but I feel was important to include. Unfortunately, the second half of the novel lost my interest. I wouldn’t call my review a “non-endorsement”, but would say that those who enjoy large amounts of legal content would certainly find The Day Lincoln Lost interesting. If legal procedure is not to your taste, you may want to look elsewhere for literary diversion.
Book Excerpt: Chapter One of The Day Lincoln Lost
Early August, 1860
Lucy Battelle’s birthday was tomorrow. She would be
twelve. Or at least that was what her mother told her. Lucy knew the date might
not be exact, because Riverview Plantation didn’t keep close track of when
slaves were born. Or when they died, for that matter. They came, they worked
and they went to their heavenly reward. Unless, of course, they were sold off
to somewhere else.
There had been a lot of selling-off of late. The
Old Master, her mother told her, had at least known how to run a plantation.
And while their food may have been wretched at times, there had always been
enough. But the Old Master had died years before Lucy was born. His eldest son,
Ezekiel Goshorn, had inherited Riverview.
Ezekiel was cruel, and he had an eye for young
black women, although he stayed away from those who had not yet developed. Lucy
has seen him looking at her of late, though. She was thin, and very tall for
her age—someone had told her she looked like a young tree—and when she looked
at herself naked, she could tell that her breasts were beginning to come. “You
are pretty,” her mother said, which sent a chill through her.
Whatever his sexual practices, Goshorn had no head
for either tobacco farming or business, and Riverview was visibly suffering for
it, and not only for a shortage of food. Lucy could see that the big house was
in bad need of painting and other repairs, and the dock on the river, which
allowed their crop to be sent to market, looked worse and worse every year. By
now it was half-falling-down. Slaves could supply the labor to repair things,
of course, but apparently Goshorn couldn’t afford the materials.
Last year, a blight had damaged almost half the
tobacco crop. Goshorn had begun to sell his slaves south to make ends meet.
In the slave quarter, not a lot was really known
about being sold south, except that it was much hotter there, the crop was
harder-to-work cotton instead of tobacco and those who went didn’t come back.
Several months earlier, two of Lucy’s slightly
older friends had been sold, and she had watched them manacled and put in the
back of a wagon, along with six others. Her friends were sobbing as the wagon
moved away. Lucy was dry-eyed because then and there she had decided to escape.
Others had tried to escape before her, of course,
but most had been caught and brought back. When they arrived back, usually
dragged along in chains by slave catchers, Goshorn—or one of his five sons—had
whipped each of them near to death. A few had actually died, but most had been
nursed back to at least some semblance of health by the other slaves.
Lucy began to volunteer to help tend to them—to
feed them, put grease on their wounds, hold their hands while they moaned and
carry away the waste from their bodies. Most of all, though, she had listened
to their stories—especially to what had worked and what had failed.
One thing she had learned was that they used
hounds to pursue you, and that the hounds smelled any clothes you left behind
to track you. One man told her that another man who had buried his one pair of
extra pants in the woods before he left—not hard to do because slaves had so
little—had not been found by the dogs.
Still another man said a runaway needed to take a
blanket because as you went north, it got colder, especially at night, even in
the summer. And you needed to find a pair of boots that would fit you. Lucy had
tried on her mother’s boots—the ones she used in the winter—and they fit. Her
mother would find another pair, she was sure.
The hard thing was the Underground Railroad. They
had all heard about it. They had even heard the masters damning it. Lucy had
long understood that it wasn’t actually underground and wasn’t even a railroad.
It was just people, white and black, who helped you escape—who fed you, hid you
in safe houses and moved you, sometimes by night, sometimes under a load of hay
or whatever they had that would cover you.
The problem was you couldn’t always tell which
ones were real railroaders and which ones were slave catchers posing as
railroaders. The slaves who came back weren’t much help about how to tell the
difference because most had guessed wrong. Lucy wasn’t too worried about it.
She had not only the optimism of youth, but a secret that she thought would
surely help her.
Tonight was the night. Over the past few days she
had dug a deep hole in the woods where she could bury her tiny stash of things
that might carry her smell. For weeks before that, she had foraged and dug for
mushrooms in the woods, and so no one seemed to pay much mind to her foraging
and digging earlier that day. As she left, she planned to take the
now-too-small shift she had secretly saved from last year’s allotment—her only
extra piece of clothing—along with her shoes and bury them in the hole. That
way the dogs could not take her smell from anything left behind. She would take
the blanket she slept in with her.
She had also saved up small pieces of smoked meat
so that she had enough—she hoped—to sustain her for a few days until she could
locate the Railroad. She dropped the meat into a small cloth bag and hung it
from a string tied around her waist, hidden under her shift.
Her mother had long ago fallen asleep, and the
moon had set. Even better, it was cloudy and there was no starlight. Lucy put
on her mother’s boots, stepped outside the cabin and looked toward the woods.
As she started to move, Ezekiel Goshorn appeared
in front of her, seemingly out of nowhere, along with two of his sons and said,
“Going somewhere, Lucy?”
“I’m just standing here.”
“Hold out your arms.”
“Hold out your arms!”
She hesitated but finally did as he asked, and one
of his sons, the one called Amasa, clamped a pair of manacles around her
wrists. “We’ve been watching you dig in the woods,” he said. “Planning a trip
Lucy didn’t answer.
“Well, we have a little trip to St. Louis planned
for you instead.”
As Ezekiel pushed her along, she turned to see if
her mother had been awakened by the noise. If she had, she hadn’t come out of
the cabin. Probably afraid. Lucy had been only four the first time she’d seen
Ezekiel Goshorn flog her mother, and that was not the last time she’d been
forced to stand there and hear her scream.
About the Author
Charles Rosenberg is the author of the legal thriller Death on a High Floor and its sequels. The credited legal consultant to the TV shows LA Law, Boston Legal, The Practice, and The Paper Chase, he was also one of two on-air legal analysts for E! Television’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials. He teaches as an adjunct law professor at Loyola Law School and has also taught at UCLA, Pepperdine and Southwestern law schools. He practices law in the Los Angeles area.
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