Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Novel Approach to a Famous First Lady

Janis Cooke Newman's first novel,Mary,begins at Bellevue Place where the well known widow of Abraham Lincoln has been forced into by her eldest son(and a very public court hearing). Mrs. Lincoln would strike some as not really needing to be locked away-in modern times,she'd be seen as a shopoholic with maniac depressive mood swings who enjoyed a good seance now and then. Back then,however,her emotional probelms were attributed to being"over stimulated"amongst other things.

Mary starts to keep a journal of her past and present life,where we learn about the source of her anxieties;her mother's death from childbed fever during a cholera epidemic when Mary was six created one of many separation traumas that plagued her thru out life. Later on,her strong will and determination helps her to be courted by Abraham and then married,despite her family's objections to him. Lincoln's own bouts of depression complicate the relationship as well as his slow yet steady rise up the political ladder.

As you read on,you can't help but be absorbed by strongly passionate rhythms of Mary's voice. This is a woman who may be troubled but is not a raving lunatic,rather at times,a lonely and misunderstood soul who forges ahead to make the best of things,particularly for the ones she loves. You also connect with some of her fellow inmates such as the sadly sweet Minnie Judd,a woman who straves herself while she memorizes bible passages to be perfect in the eyes of her reverend husband. Many of the methods in which these ladies were made to endure(cold baths,overuse of the drug chloral hydrate)as well as the attitudes of those in charge are brought boldly to light.

Newman's style of writing hits all the right notes of character development and historical atmosphere. The closest I've ever seen to it's like before would be Allan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. This is one debut novel that you ought not to miss-Mary is due out by early October(please click the title link for more info)and you should add to your reading list ASAP. It may be a tad long for reading groups but this mix of history,bio and the inner life of one of the most intruing First Ladies should give folks quite abit to talk about.


PJS said...

Did it get into how she was basically Lincoln's second choice, after his first true love didn't work out at all? Interesting story.

I'm not sure about the whole historical novel concept; I love love love history so much that I might get annoyed seeing real people fictionalized.

lady t said...

Well,it's from Mary's p.o.v. and she pretty much out and out seduces him here(which reads well,IMO).

I prefer historical fiction because when done well,it teaches you more than a dry text and adds some empathy into what people of that time period felt and thought.