The Emancipator's Wife
Hambly (A Free Man of Color, etc.) has a knack for bringing historical figures to life in all their flawed humanity. This touching portrait of Mary Todd, a brilliant but troubled belle in Kentucky when she meets Abraham Lincoln in 1839, recounts Mary's personal struggles and triumphs and describes the general state of women in the 19th century, as well as supplies an evenhanded overview of the political and practical issues surrounding the emancipation of the slaves. With her sharp intelligence, social skill and standing, and political astuteness, Mary seems the perfect partner for Lincoln. But her emotional problems hobble her from the start and worsen over the years under the tremendous strain of political life and with the terrible loss of three of her four sons as well as her husband. Ten years after Lincoln's assassination, Mary's sole remaining son is fighting a court battle to have his mother declared insane. Told from her own perspective and that of some fictionalized historical figures like Frederick Douglass, Mary's story, including her hard-won insight into her own difficulties and her addiction to her laudanum-laced medicine, is moving. Despite a jarring abruptness to some of the changes in point of view and the slow pace of the narration, the novel paints a full, nuanced picture of a talented, tormented woman.
Hambly has painted a compelling fictional portrait of one of the most maligned and misunderstood First Ladies in American history. Born into a prominent Lexington family, pretty and passionate Mary Todd always had difficulty controlling her legendary temper. Plagued by headaches and spells even as a child, she suffered--according to the inadequate medical lexicon of the day--from female problems and a nervous disposition. Defying both her family and convention, the independent-minded Mary married a debt-ridden bumpkin with dubious long-term prospects. Even marriage to the undisputed love of her life did not bring her enduring happiness or contentment. Although she and Lincoln enjoyed an egalitarian partnership, she continued to be haunted by voices and visions that often led to fits of hysteria. Her delicate mental health was made even more precarious by the tragic and untimely deaths of three of her four sons and by her husband's assassination. Brought up on charges of lunacy by her son Robert in 1875, she fights for her own emancipation as she revisits pivotal episodes in her storied past. As the action stretches back and forth through time, an intelligent woman struggles to come to terms with depression and addiction in a society ill-equipped to cope with mental illness of any sort. Margaret Flanagan
Fine historical novel, February 28, 2005
By C. Graessle "High Liber" (Southern Maryland)
Preface: I am a librarian at a local public library. I am also a long-time FAN of Barbara Hambly's novels, both historical mysteries and her numerous fantasy works.
This book is insightful and thought-provoking. Hambly uses her fine ability to write sympathetic, yet very human characters to provide a credible portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Is this book the final word on Mrs. Lincoln? No. Do I have a greater awareness of the complexity of life in the American 19th century, especially from a woman's perspective? Yes!
Barbara Hambly is a historian by training and her ability to weave the details of a time and place make her historical (and fantasy!) books a pleasure to read. At times you can feel the oppressive humidity or find yourself wrapped in the sights and sounds of a parlor scene or find your heart beating in anticipation or fear along with Mrs. Lincoln.
I didn't know much about Mary Todd Lincoln before reading The Emancipator's Wife. Judge by her Wikipedia entry, the book was very accurate.
I agree with the comments above. But the negative points deserve a little explication.
The novel is too slow getting started: Mary doesn't see Lincoln until page 154 and meet him formally until page 180. The POV jumps unpredictably between Mary in the present, Mary in the past, and John Wilamet, Mary's black friend and attendant. And the story suffers a bit because Lincoln's political and wartime maneuverings take place mostly off-stage. We're stuck with Mary as she complains about not knowing what's happening and being alone.
The Native aspects
The Emancipator's Wife has a few Indian references:
...like the Indian spirit who tortured her during her migraines.
...the spirit of a dead Indian was at work in her head, drawing wires from her eyes.
...her tormenting Indian spirit.
...feeling as if the mad Indian shaman who ruled her headaches were trying to twist the bones or her skull apart.
The Star Trek connection
Barbara Hambly also wrote three of the best Star Trek novels ever:
The Emancipator's Wife: 8.0.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.