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    February 11, 2013

    More books, different war

    I think it was at least a month ago that I went to see Lincoln. It was such a good movie, you guys. I think I would have liked it even more if I'd had even the slightest idea what was going on. I know mortifyingly little about the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation or anything beyond kindergarten facts about Abraham Lincoln. I thought it was kind of Spielberg, though, that he allowed me to enjoy his movie without - apparently - ever having taken eleventh grade American History. 

    Anyway, I went home that night and downloaded Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the book on which the movie is supposedly based. Although I will tell you straight out that the entirety of the movie happens within, say, three or four pages of the book, and I'm still not sure what was true and what was movie. Doesn't matter - the book was SO GOOD. It had a bit of a slow start, reviewing as it does the biographies of Lincoln and his four rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. But then Lincoln gets elected and history starts happening super fast and WHOA. For a while there you think DKG is telling the story of the Second Coming. 

    And I don't mean that snarkily... I've seen DKG on The Daily Show enough times to decide that she's a Nice Lady, in addition to being Super Smart, and I have no reason to believe her portrait of Lincoln isn't excellent. Everyone's heard of "Honest Abe" and he did free the slaves and save the country, but reading this book you're sort of entranced by the almost superhuman kindness and magnanimity of this not-famous "prairie lawyer". Or maybe it's just the fact that I spent much of the last year reading about his polar opposite, Adolf Hitler. 

    I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, to be talking about those two men in the same breath, but I couldn't help myself! They were both these obscure small town men with fierce ambition who rose to the top of their respective countries - one just happened to be evil and the other downright saintly. How does that happen? I suppose there are all kinds of "great" men. It just struck me as unfortunate. Unfair? Throughout Team of Rivals DKG is quoting someone or other saying it was the hand of God that put Lincoln in the White House - whose hand was responsible for Hitler? 

    This is very silly, I know. Dumb comparison, dumb to think about. I was just so accustomed to reading about derelicts and criminals in power that Lincoln and his cabinet was a mind-altering practically jaw-dropping switch. Not only were they working for what they thought was in the best interests of the country, those interests actually were the best! How often does that happen?!

    So I'm saying that I learned a lot. I now feel like I know a thing or two about the Civil War without having to trudge through the Ken Burns documentary or reading a history of each battle. Which is good. I think my main bias against the Civil War as Something To Learn About has been the amount of horror and gore and misery, but DKG found a way to write about the terrible things without dwelling on them. 

    Some other things I thought while I was reading - 

    Every time I hit upon the word 'slavery', which was A LOT obvs, I experienced a mental jolt. Just the word, the LETTERS looked... I don't know. Like each time I read it I had to remind myself all over again what it meant. The reality of it, I suppose. I realized that as a white person living in the Pacific Northwest in 2013 I haven't had much occasion to think much about our country's history of slavery, beyond what I learned in school. But as I read I found myself thinking: how is it possible that we can ever heal from that? How can reconciliation ever be possible? 

    Mary Lincoln could have CLEARLY benefited from some SSRIs. And I felt HORRIBLE for her. I thought DKG did well with Mary, not hiding any of her flaws and errors, but explaining why she might have acted the way she did. I liked the treatment of Mary in the movie too. Sort of a "yes, this woman is bat&%$# crazy, but you can see how that might have happened, yes?" 

    The "villain" of the story, at least as far as Lincoln's position within the Republican party went, is Salmon Chase, the future Secretary of the Treasury. He's a Pharisee - pious yet odious and horribly un-self aware. But he was the most radical of all the rivals in his indictment of slavery, never wanted to compromise, tireless in his pursuit, matter-of-fact. It made me like him enough to feel sorry for him. 

    And you guys, I like politics. I like reading about it, I get hooked on cable news shows, I like to think about all that stuff. I've never been sold on a politician, but I've also never thought all politicians were dirtbags. Some of them are, some of them are just trying to do a good job, some of them actually are doing a good job. But reading this book... I kept thinking, if ABRAHAM LINCOLN had to manipulate people and occasionally "hide the truth" and all that, then DEAR GOD what is the hope for the rest of us! I just hated thinking of myself as part of the Unwashed Masses, part of Public Opinion which must be molded and formed, by a politician, to achieve a goal. I want more credit than that? Except that IS where I fall in the Hierarchy Of People Who Make Decisions and I just have to trust them? When even ABRAHAM LINCOLN skirts the truth? (EVEN IF I AGREE WITH WHY HE IS DOING IT?!) Ugh. Hate it. Very down on Government now. 

    Oh, and along with that it was hard to swallow the heaps of lawmakers who thought slavery was a bad thing, but didn't think it was THAT big a deal, or thought freed slaves would be happier if they were shipped back to Africa, or thinking that the Union should compensate Southerners for their lost laborers, or saying they were free in the North, but if they were escaped slaves the North was duty bound to send them back... I don't know. All this honoring the constitution. Which I SUPPOSE is a good thing? EXCEPT NOT IN THIS CASE? From my perspective, of course, it seems OUTLANDISH and WILD and WHAAAAT?! I tried very hard to put myself in 1860 something - and failed. Blargh. 

    My favorite parts might be reading about the women and family lives of all these important men. They were no wallflowers, these ladies. 

    These are all elementary observations to you, Internet, I know. Reading war books is not making me SMART, only removing me from The Place Of Complete And Total Ignorance. 

    AAAAAAAAAAANYWAY. You guys are so nice. Humoring me. *bats eyelashes*

    So now I'm reading The Guns of August, which is the book recommended for Learning About World War 1. It's written by a very smart lady, Barbara Tuchman, and won the Pulitzer Prize, and I had to slog through about 25% (according to my Kindle) before it started to get interesting. Or at least something I didn't have to read five times to understand. The beginning is all a mess of French colonels and German field marshals and talk about offensive vs. defensive strategies and it starts to feel like you are reading the "begat who begat who begat" part of the Bible. The war has started and I am STILL not sure why. Well, besides "some damn foolish thing in the Balkans", of course. This means I'm going to have to call my dad and profess ignorance I HATE DOING THAT. 

    But now that the book is in the thick of things? SUPER INTERESTING. I feel like I can keep track of what's happening, at least. That's always good. It's also contributing to my current politics revulsion. (See, when you're reading about Hitler, you EXPECT everyone involved to be horrible self-serving liars.)

    Okay, it's been a long afternoon/evening, I totally bombed at Weight Watchers today, and I'm thinking I might just go to bed at (yes) 8pm. Shut up. THE END.

     

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    Comments

    Maggie, you speak my family's language. Team of Rivals is one of my dad's favorite books and my husband liked it a lot to, so it's been on my to-read list for forever. I love politics and really want to read it, but it's just so huge I've never felt ready to tackle it.

    Also, Thomas is reading Guns of August RIGHT NOW, so I've been hearing all sorts of observations from it! He had a terrible time keeping all those French and German military leaders separate, too.

    Maggie, you make my heart all go pitter-pat when you start talking history... I was a history major in college, and i make my living in the realm of old stuff, and I think such questions and musings are FASCINATING. Also, I recently discovered West Wing episodes on Netflix and have been feeling out on all things White House, so this post was great fun!

    I haven't read Team of Rivals, but I have read a lot of books about Lincoln and even one (fiction) told from Mary's perspective. She has been portrayed by a lot of men as a weight dragging her husband down because she was sort of crazy, and impulsive. Her mother died when she was very young. Her husband was gone for long streches riding the circuit. She lost one son before they got to the White House, and one in it. Her husband was killed, and then her son Tad also died young. She went through a lot, and many men, my husband included can't seem to understand that all that might make you act a little crazy even if you were of sound mind before. I thought Sally Field did a good job as Mary in the movie also Maggie. I also wasn't totally sure what was going on part of the time though so don't feel bad about that.

    I was in Seattle a couple of months ago and picked up a copy of "Don't Know Much about History" for $.50. It's such a great introduction! I am Canadian, so I didn't learn a lot of what's in the book (and what I did learn was from a different perspective). Anyway, I bring it up because he has a very succinct explanation of the beginning of WWI, which you might find helpful.

    I wish I had the attention span to read history right now. Or, perhaps more accurately, I wish I had time, money, and access to a good university where I could take history classes for FUN. With a teacher, to point out nuances I might (definitely) miss otherwise!

    You make me want to read all these books! Right now!

    My husband says read "Battle Cry of Freedom" for more Civil War knowledge and "A Peace to End All Peace" for WW1.

    You keep giving me history books to read, but I'm on a roll of very good fiction -- Where'd You Go Bernadette? (thanks for the recommendation!), The Round House, Tell The Wolves I'm Home -- and I don't want to break it.

    I am reading a book about feminism in the 1970s that's getting me good and riled every night. My husband is so happy about that.

    I love your posts about history books; I am a huge fan of them, too. "Guns of August" was a solid read, but oh! The stuff about the reality of WWI just breaks my heart. Canadians casualties were insanely high in that war -- as in, more than 1/10th of our total population were killed or wounded.

    Now I want to read the Lincoln book. Yep - I love US history, too. Another fun read - 'How the States Got Their Shapes'.

    I decided to read Les Miserables before seeing the movie. SUPER LONG book. I now know more about the French Revolution than I ever knew existed. I love your book recommendations.Now I have to decide what to read next!

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