Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Turning Point: Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln by Judith St. George

With Presidents' Day just ahead and the presidential primaries blitzing the news, Judith St. George should have a hit in her just published book,
Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln. St. George shared Caldecott honors with David Small for her witty and informative So You Want to be President? Revised and Updated Edition, which combined solid information with quirky trivia tidbits about all of our presidents, from George to, er, George. Her newest biography in the Turning Points series is just right for those February book reports.

Yes, Virginia, Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the Kentucky backwoods. In fact, he lived in a series of rather primitive log edifices, including a three-sided shanty open to the elements on the front. Abe's father Thomas Lincoln was an unschooled frontiersman who followed the will o' the wisp of cheap and free land across three states during Abe's early childhood, and when the family had no near neighbors to help, built their temporary houses as best he could alone.

His mother Sarah Hanks Lincoln was able to read, but strangely, unable to write, evidence of her sketchy education. Nevertheless, she fought to get Abe and his sister Sally into the only school available, a Kentucky "blab" school (so-called because all students recited aloud at the same time) which held classes intermittently during the winter months when farming was "laid by." Abe took to schooling well and treasured his Dilworth's Speller, a combination speller, grammar and social studies textbook, which his parents managed to buy for him. Although his formal schooling amounted to less than one year, this one book introduced Lincoln to history, geography, Bible stories, and fables. Throughout his typically hardscrabble childhood on the frontier Sarah kept her children clean, fed, and well nurtured.

Abe's dark times came after the family's move to Illinois. In their first open shanty the family was often hungry. In one significant incident, young Abe grabbed his father's rifle and shot a turkey that wandered near and then, seeing the dead bird fall, amazingly resolved never to kill another large animal. Although Thomas managed to build a small dirt-floored cabin for his family, real "pinch times" came when Sarah Hanks Lincoln died of the "milk fever." Without her loving hands, their life became almost unbearable for nine-year old Abe and his sister. Dirty, ragged, ill-fed, and undirected, Abe seemed to have abandoned his mother's dying plea to "live as I taught you."

At last Thomas Lincoln roused himself from his depression and, leaving the two children to shift for themselves, went back to Kentucky to bring back a new wife. And for Abraham Lincoln, that was his turning point. Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln proved to be Abe's salvation. She appeared with three children of her own, ample household goods, and a wide-open heart for the motherless boy and his sister. Abe and Sally were bathed and fed and dressed in new clothes in short order. The house was refurbished with a wooden floor, curtains, and a new sleeping loft, but best of all, Sarah unpacked an actual library of books--Aesop, The Life of George Washington, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and even The Arabian Nights--and nothing was ever the same for Abe. Sarah wangled a few more months in the local blab school for Abe, excused him from chores and overlooked his stolen moments of study and pleasure reading, and despite the fact that she herself could not read, encouraged him to read aloud to the family each night. Had Abe not fallen into the caring hands of an illiterate woman who valued learning enough to haul books across Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois for her children and stepchildren, he might never have become the self-educated lawyer and president that he became.

Judith St. George tells the well-known story of Abraham Lincoln's early life with a zest that readers will find compelling, laying forth the roots of his conduct of the presidency during the trying times of the civil war. She recalls the caravans of chained slaves whose slow, forced march down Kentucky Pike before the eyes of the small Abe Lincoln shaped his later policies. Despite the often hard, sometimes cruel frontier ways, she shows how the sensitive boy found the heart to plead for "malice for none," and "charity for all" at the end of his life. Matt Faulkner's illustrations catch the essence of the young Lincoln ably and add much to the readability of this engaging biography for young readers.



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