Tag Archives: Civil War

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln – Stephen L. Carter

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Stephen L. Carter’s thriller rewrites history in a web spun with so much intrigue, animosity, arrogance, power-mongering, posturing and corruption it might as well take place in Washington today. His conceit is that Lincoln survived the events at the Ford Theatre only to be charged with impeachment and face a political battle for his life. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating journey through post-Civil War Washington and the uneasy adjustment of a society absorbing freed slaves and the entry of educated blacks into all-white sanctuaries as peers. It’s a fairly rough integration.

Abigail Canner is a recent graduate of Oberlin, ambitious to pass the bar and practice law, excited about her acceptance as a clerk at the law firm handling Lincoln’s impeachment case. The morning she arrives for work she discovers that she isn’t to be a brilliant young black law clerk–just a clerk, a kind of glorified office staff with a broom and dustpan and little else to do. So she decides to read law on her own, with permission to borrow the firm’s books. And, because she is wicked intelligent, self-confident, stubborn and perceptive, she soon impresses an astonishing number of prominent Washingtonians and is invited to salons and dinner and catches the eyes of a few of the capital’s most eligible bachelors.

But this is not a romance. Abby is not looking for a boyfriend–her fiancee went missing in the war and she believes he will return. Her fellow law clerk is smitten nearly at once, despite the looming presence of his own powerfully-connected fiancee. And then one of the law partners managing the president’s case is brutally murdered along with a young black woman and Abby suspects the impeachment proceedings are the motive.

Secrets abound, are whispered to eager ears, hidden from sight, rumored  but unproven. There is a mysterious missing letter and a break-in at the law firm’s offices. Abby comes across several break-ins in the course of this novel and nearly doesn’t survive one of them. She gathers evidence and puzzles over the meaning of clues and coincidences–great thriller stuff. I enjoyed an historical perspective on the physical layout of a city I lived in for a number of years when I worked in the Senate. And I liked the story–good one. Credible and well-done.

I did wonder at Abby’s surprisingly easy acceptance into the halls of power and the social scene–I wouldn’t have expected Washington to be that open. Rather, her encounters with prejudice were more in the nature of an annoyance than a crippling reality. And it is crazy-making to keep track of the possible conspirators and which appointee has designs on which political office and what capitalist controls which revenue stream or industry with an agenda. But those are minor quibbles.

Good book–half-blind from staying up to finish it. But a very satisfying story with a twist or two–or three at the end that gets history back on track. Now maybe I’ll check out “Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to see what further imaginative purpose can be made of an historic icon. “Fifty Shades of Abe” maybe. Or maybe not.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln   Stephen L. Carter | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Blue Asylum – Kathy Hepinstall

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Blue Asylum has the clarity of perfectly clean water, pale blue and clear to the sandy bottom, so empty that you can see the markings on the shells there. The water off Florida’s Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, setting for the lunatic asylum that swallows Iris Dunleavy just after the Civil War, used to be that blue and translucent. The beaches were thick with prized shells and sea turtles covered the sand above the tideline with their nests each summer and their hatchlings in the height of hurricane season. I don’t know if there was ever a mental hospital on the island, back in the late 1800s, but Blue Asylum is a credible approximation of what one would have been.

Iris is delivered to the private human warehouse by cattle boat after her plantation owner husband has her declared insane and committed. Her crime is to have been too dreamy a girl, marrying a brute who considered his slaves to be disposable property, refusing to celebrate the bloody whippings for minor, or imagined, infractions, plotting a disastrous escape and insisting on her own autonomy, integrity and sanity in a sadistic patriarchal society.

The asylum is full of rich characters—the woman who believes her adored husband of forty years is still alive and dances with her on the beach, the seemingly sane woman who swallows things that are not meant to be swallowed, the Confederate soldier who slips into a screaming frenzy at any trigger for the nightmares that grip his memory and his mind. The psychiatrist is as obstinate and obtuse as the sentencing judge—Iris must be mad, else why would she be in his establishment? The matron is a malicious beast who sets Iris up for the horrifying water cure, a torture the doctor has developed to treat resistant cases.

Wendell, the shrink’s thirteen-year-old son, is going mad himself, isolated on the mosquito- and alligator-infested barrier island. He harbors terrible guilt and crushing grief for the suicide of a girl he befriended before Iris arrived. Wendell is a great character—the most empathetic and evolved person in the story. He worries about Iris as she falls in love with a dangerous patient.

What happens when truth is corrosive enough to eat through the lies wrecks the comfortable assumptions that order this mad world. The personal horrors that the main players harbor are revealed slowly but evidence of them is there from the first. Terrific book but hard to read because it made me so furious at the way human connection and the intrinsic worth of women, children, slaves and the spiritually wounded were casually and relentlessly discounted.

Confronting reality comes at a cost. People do change in the course of the novel and some are lost. That kid Wendell is a prize. Good read, if at times blood-pressure-raising. Blue Asylum is a story well-told.

Blue Asylum   Kathy Hepinstall | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. – Carole DeSanti

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Eugénie Rigault is a goose girl, grown up but not reconciled to life in the foie gras countryside. In France, in the late eighteenth century, a girl who follows her dreams and her lover to Paris, believing that she can remake herself merely by stepping on a train, is bound to be quickly disillusioned. The lover from a prominent family abandons her, alone and pregnant. The artist for whom she models leaves her at the mercy of merciless landlords and the streets. The whorehouse where she winds up hands her an herbal potion to abort the child—and she pours it in a potted palm.

Carole DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is silk brocade, gleaming in the candlelight, and the silken luxury of real chocolate in a tart. And it’s the unspeakable isolation of giving birth alone in a shabby room, of a diseased customer breaking ribs and beating hope out of a young woman with milky breasts and a feverish infant. It is artistic notoriety, loyal women friends in the back streets of Paris, rampant duplicity and greed, callous lovers, corrupt bureaucracies and betrayals. Eugénie keeps trying to remake her world to match her dreams and that world is carved up and ripped away from her without warning time and time again.

The baby, Berthe, goes to a foundling home that is no better than a prison and from which Eugénie never stops trying to ransom her. The lovers, patrons, courts and house madams are a backdrop of misery that seduces, uses and controls. Through it all, the young women pour themselves into survival and schemes for self-determination and independence. One wealthy Confederate expat lover keeps Eugénie in style so her presence will conceal his homosexuality. The end of the Civil War abruptly ends his Paris exile and her comfortable life. Another lover paints a portrait of her that wins a salon prize and achieves a level of fame. “An Unknown Girl” is the name of the painting and it might be a stand-in for the model herself. Eugénie’s life is something unknown to her. She sees her motives only after she has paid the penalties for them. She spends a decade trying to reclaim her child and reconcile her sense of self with her reality.

The Siege of Paris is an unavoidable factor in the lives of women who live at the edge of society and ruin. Eugénie is forced to sort the lies and treacheries and find a price she can pay to survive. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the tempestuous story of a mesmerizing heroine who seems real and remarkably contemporary in our own conflicted and chauvinistic times. Really good read, lovely prose, compelling protagonist and great story. When an author gets fiction right it is such a gift to a reader. DeSanti has been generous with this one.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.     Carole DeSanti | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Clover Adams – Natalie Dykstra

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Clover Adams, born Marian Hooper in 1843, came from a relatively prominent and well-to-do Boston family beset by an operatic excess of tragedy. She was the baby of the family and her mother’s pet—her mother gave her the nickname Clover. But even the charms of a bright and beloved child were no match for the tuberculosis that claimed her life when Clover was only five. That was the first of the child’s major losses—throughout her life, a number of parental figures and family members died unexpectedly or committed suicide. When she was nine, her aunt, who had become a mother-figure to Clover after her mother’s death, separated from her husband and killed herself by drinking arsenic. Each loss stripped away more of Clover’s sanity and security. Natalie Dykstra examines those losses and Clover’s “gilded” life in her wonderfully researched biography Clover Adams.

Robert Hooper was devoted to his motherless children and focused all of his energy on their wellbeing and education. Clover went to the finest schools and received an education as good as or better than most young men of her station. She moved in a privileged world of social events, horseback rides, summers in grand houses on the New England shore, dinners with the best and the brightest artists and public figures at her table. Clover was plain, unlike her beautiful mother and sisters, and never was comfortable being painted or photographed. Despite her intelligence, lively curiosity and aptitude for engaging conversation, she married much later than her peers—at twenty-eight, to Henry Adams who fell hard for her despite his illustrious family’s disapproval.

Clover and Henry took the traditional grand tour of Europe during the year after their marriage and she suffered an alarming depression while they cruised the Nile for three months. But, by the time they returned to Europe, she had recovered and the couple socialized with American friends abroad and luminaries in the worlds of the arts, letters and politics. They spent several years in Boston on their return, living near Clover’s doting father while Henry taught at Harvard. Clover was uncommonly talented at setting up a gracious home and establishing a sought-after salon, skills she took to Washington when they moved to the capital so Henry could research his ambitious American histories, the books that would make his reputation.

By all accounts, Henry and Clover Adams lived a charmed life at the center of the social whirl that was Washington. All credit for this goes to Clover who was adept at managing invitations and who consistently maintained the most popular evenings of conversation. But she was searching. She stayed very close to her father, writing him copious letters every Sunday with remarkably gifted recountings of the world around her. Clover Adams was herself a talented writer but Henry, even as he supported and relied on her, made no move to share the literary glory in the family. Clover helped with his research and created a protected space for him to write in—and kept seeking some meaningful occupation of her own.

Eventually she discovered photography and set out to teach herself how to take pictures according to the same artistic standards of the paintings and drawings she and Henry collected. When her talent became obvious and she was asked to contribute a photograph for the cover of a prestigious magazine, Henry objected and she didn’t oppose him. The couple had thoroughbred dogs and horses but no children and Clover’s very full life began to seem empty to her. She and Henry grew apart and his affections shifted to a beautiful married younger mutual friend, although he made no move to act on the attraction and sought ways to protect Clover from another bout of depression.

The death of her father, coming after suicides and deaths in her immediate family, unhinged her and she was inconsolable, gradually slipping into isolation and hopeless melancholy. In December 1845 when she was 42 years old, she drank the potassium cyanide she used to develop her photographs and killed herself. Natalie Dykstra interprets the tragedy of Clover Adams as a mix of artistic and intellectual frustration, irreparable emotional loss at a young age and the possibility of genetic mental instability in her family. It’s hard to assign meaning to her brief life and death. All motives for the suicide could be true. Clover was clearly intelligent, charismatic and talented. She moved in a dazzling world at the top tier of society. She had her share of grief and found it insupportable. What is left is a modest legacy of epistolary and photographic accomplishment. Her husband was famous in his lifetime and remains a prominent historical literary figure. Clover Adams is a nearly forgotten story, brought to life in the pages of Dykstra’s book.

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life   Natalie Dykstra | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012