Friday, January 30, 2009

Fish Tale: Abe's Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln by Jen Bryant

Once, when asked what he remembered about the war with Great Britain, Lincoln replied:

"Nothing but this. I had been fishing one day and caught a little fish which I was taking home. I met a soldier on the road and, having been always told at home that we must be good to the soldiers, I gave it to him."

Abe was hungry. Turnip soup and the berries he and his sister Sarah picked daily never quite fill his family's bellies, but little Abe, no more than six years old, is too small to help his dad clear land for pay, and picking berries under his bossy big sister's direction is his daily lot. That is, until one day his father gives him a new job.

"Why don't you take your fishing pole over to Knob Creek--see if you can catch us a fish for dinner?"

As he happily sets out, little Abe repeats the word to himself--fish, fish, fish. It has a nice sound, and Abe loves words. He loves the sound of them on his tongue; he loves drawing them in the dirt; and he loves reading them on the days he gets to tag along with his sister to school. And Abe's empty stomach reminds him that he hadn't had a fish for dinner in way too long. At the creek he sets to work and finally lands a fine, fat perch. As the shadows grow long, he starts proudly back home with his catch.

The fat fish swinging at his side, already he could smell it cooking over the fire. He could see Ma's smile and feel Pa's pride. Even Sarah would have to admit Abe had done well!

But then Abe meets a soldier--tattered and thin, with worn-out boots--walking down the road. Abe remembers his mother's admonition, "Be good to the soldiers," and his teacher's words when he asked why the soldiers were heading north to fight the British. "For freedom," she had replied.

Abe remembers a cricket he caught and put in a homemade cage and how it quit moving and chirping until he gave it its freedom. But people didn't live in cages, did they? Why would they have to fight for freedom, he wonders.

But then Abe sees how hungrily the soldier looks at his fish, and with some reluctance he finally makes a decision.

"Here," said Abe at last. "I can catch another one, I reckon."

Then Abe has to ask the soldier his question.

"Did you see freedom?" he asked.

"I reckon I did see it sometimes," the soldier replied. "But other times it seemed a long way off."

Back home, Sarah is unhappy that Abe has given away their supper, but Ma and Pa seem to understand that Abe was only trying to be good to a soldier fighting for their freedom. Practicing spelling to himself that night, Abe repeats the words he knows:

"D-O-G, F-O-G, F-L-A-G." Pa had said the flag stood for freedom. He tried the word out in his mouth. It was a big word. Abe could tell the next time he went to school he would practice writing it.

"Someday" Abe thought, "it might be a good word to know."

On the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is good to have a new story about Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Jen Bryant's Abe's Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln, is a good story, rooted in truth and well told for her intended audience. Her little Abe yearns to be strong enough to pick up his father's big axe and tall enough to reach a tempting apple hanging too high in the tree, but is proud to be able to do the grown-up work of bringing home food for supper, although he also mischievously saves his last worm to plant on his sister's pillow that night. Illustrations by Amy Bates are executed in pencil and watercolors in soft greens, browns, and russets, with each page of text cleverly enclosed in a frame of rustic twigs. As she describes the young Abe Lincoln resolving to remember the word freedom for the future, the artist's final page shows President Lincoln presumably writing his "Gettysburg Address," putting to good use that one big word he puzzled about so long ago:

"...this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

A worthy addition to the read-aloud repertoire about our sixteenth president.

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