Saturday, January 31, 2009

Goat in the White House: Lincoln And His Boys by Rosemary Wells

"Mama ordered a new black suit for Papa-day" says Taddie from his pillow. "She sent money in the letter. Two pairs of trousers."

With that whispered confidence between Tad and Willie Lincoln one night in 1859, the chain of events is set in motion which leads to their years in the White House, sadly for Willie and, as we know, for his father Abe, their last.

In her memoir of the White House days of Tad and Willie and their Pa, Lincoln and His Boys, Rosemary Wells gives us an intimate, first-person-voiced account of what it was like for a child living in The President's House, as it was known then, in the wartime capital of Washington, D.C.

In alternating chapters narrated by first Willie and then Tad Lincoln, we see their mother's recurring bouts of melancholy as a child would see them, their father's efforts to raise her spirits and keep her engaged in their lives despite her sadness over the earlier death of a son. The story begins as Willie goes along to Chicago on a big train to pick up the prophetic suit which his father will wear in the coming campaign, where talk of the coming conflict is open and a bit scary to the older brother.

Then in 1861 Tad and Willie take the twelve-day railroad trip to Washington, D.C., a big adventure for the boys, even though their father conceals his identity in what the brothers consider funny disguises because of death threats from the Copperheads.

In Washington Mary Todd Lincoln throws herself energetically into refurbishing the White House, grumbling about "bachelor presidents" who had let the place run down dreadfully. Meanwhile, Tad and Willie make friends with Holly and Bud Taft, with whom they explore secret attic rooms and dusty basement storerooms full of forgotten treasures--a Minuteman's uniform, a rusted sword and guns and trunks full of clothes and trinkets left by past presidents. On the roof they build a fort, with mock cannons assembled out of the largest logs the four boys can muster, to defend the President's House from the Rebels, and at last the boys finally persuade Pa to get them a pet goat.

Although, as we know, the ending of Tad Lincoln's life in the White House was not a happy one, Rosemary Wells manages to highlight the boyhood fun the two brothers shared in their White House years, while keeping the reader aware of the underlying seriousness of the time. P. J. Lynch's illustrations are striking and lovely and add much to the appeal of this beginning chapter book. With children about the ages of Tad and Willie Lincoln now living in that same historic President's House, Lincoln and His Boys (Candlewick Press, 2008) should be popular with today's young readers.

For a spirited account of Lincoln's own boyhood, see Judith St. George's Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln, reviewed here on February 12, 2008.

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