Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sister Sally's Story: My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story by Harry Mazer

In this year bicentennial birth year of Abraham Lincoln, veteran writer Harry Mazer has turned his considerable storytelling and historical fiction skills to an account to some of the most formative years of Lincoln's childhood, narrated by his older sister Sarah, called Sally.

When Abe was eight and Sally ten, the Lincoln family, Thomas and Nancy, were faced with the prospect of losing their 278 acre farm on Knob Creek in Kentucky. Kentucky's frontier land laws were lax, and Thomas Lincoln learned that title to the land he had bought and paid for in cash was actually held by others. Sadly and in disgust with their state's law, the family left their comfortable house which able carpenter Thomas had built on the Louisville-Nashville Road and with their cow Sweet Pea and wagon pulled by their horse Branch, set out to homestead Federal land available in the undeveloped woods of Indiana.

Sally tells the story of that trip, camping beside the road, falling behind and getting lost, and finally arriving to what seemed like an utter wilderness. Sally describes their three-sided lean-to cabin, her fear of wild animals as they slept with little but a fire between them and the forest, and the joy when neighbors gathered to help them raise a small, dirt-floored cabin in which they lived while their father cleared land for spring planting.

Sally and Abe had occasionally been able to attend a Mr. Riney's subscription school in Knob Creek, but now their education was mostly in the tasks of daily life. Abe, tall and unusually strong like his father, began his skills with the axe, and Sally helped her mother with almost all of the other tasks of survival, collecting dandelion and plantain roots and leaves to supplement the wild meat that Thomas brought home.

"There was goodness and patience in Mama that I could never find in in me," Sally says, but despite childhood quarrels and competition, Sally and her younger brother grew up close, practicing reading and writing whenever they could. Their love and loyalty was tested greatly when their beloved mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of "milk fever," (snakeroot poisoning) and their father fell into an unusually idle depression. At last a letter arrived from a dear childhood friend, Sarah Bush Johnson, who, having heard from relatives of Nancy's death, wrote a letter of condolence and mentioned that she also was left with children to raise after her husband's death. Thomas soon dictated a reply to Sarah, proposing a marriage of convenience for both of them, and when Sally was twelve and Abe ten, he set forth to Kentucky to fetch Sarah back as their new stepmother.

Left alone with only their teen-aged cousin Dennis Hanks, who had lost his guardians to milk fever also, Sally and Abe endured a hard time during their father's absence, but the marriage proved a good one for the Lincoln children. Sarah Johnson arrived with three children, furniture, household goods, and boundless energy and affection for her new stepchildren. A woman whose respect for learning prompted her to transport books across the wilderness, Sarah encouraged their further education when it was available and allowed them to read and learn despite her own minimal literacy.

In his My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story, (Simon & Schuster, 2009) Harry Mazer uses Sally Lincoln's keen spirit and lively voice to tell the story of little brother Abe's early years in a way which speaks straight to the heart of elementary readers. Through his spirited but dutiful big sister's eyes, the reader sees both the trials and the joys of a frontier family which helped shape the man Lincoln became. For youngsters who may find the textbook accounts of Lincoln's later life a bit remote, this new piece of historical fiction, filled with childhood fun and adventures as well as hardships, will help them understand the child who was father of the man.

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