Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn

In I Am Abraham, Charyn returns with an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War. Narrated boldly in the first person, I Am Abraham effortlessly mixes humor with Shakespearean-like tragedy, in the process creating an achingly human portrait of our sixteenth President.

Tracing the historic arc of Lincoln’s life from his picaresque days as a gangly young lawyer in Sangamon County, Illinois, through his improbable marriage to Kentucky belle Mary Todd, to his 1865 visit to war-shattered Richmond only days before his assassination, I Am Abraham hews closely to the familiar Lincoln saga. Charyn seamlessly braids historical figures such as Mrs. Keckley—the former slave, who became the First Lady’s dressmaker and confidante—and the swaggering and almost treasonous General McClellan with a parade of fictional extras: wise-cracking knaves, conniving hangers-on, speculators, scheming Senators, and even patriotic whores.

We encounter the renegade Rebel soldiers who flanked the District in tattered uniforms and cardboard shoes, living in a no-man’s-land between North and South; as well as the Northern deserters, young men all, with sunken, hollowed faces, sitting in the punishing sun, waiting for their rendezvous with the firing squad; and the black recruits, whom Lincoln’s own generals wanted to discard, but who play a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. At the center of this grand pageant is always Lincoln himself, clad in a green shawl, pacing the White House halls in the darkest hours of America’s bloodiest war.

Using biblically cadenced prose, cornpone nineteenth-century humor, and Lincoln’s own letters and speeches, Charyn concocts a profoundly moral but troubled commander in chief, whose relationship with his Ophelia-like wife and sons—Robert, Willie, and Tad—is explored with penetrating psychological insight and the utmost compassion. Seized by melancholy and imbued with an unfaltering sense of human worth, Charyn’s President Lincoln comes to vibrant, three-dimensional life in a haunting portrait we have rarely seen in historical fiction.



I wanted to read I Am Abraham for several reasons.  Firstly, it's Abraham Lincoln, for goodness sake.  He's one of the two US Presidents with their birthday listed on calendars printed for this country.  He's one of a handful of Commanders-in-Chief that most people (including schoolchildren in the US) can tell you more about than that he was President.  Secondly, I am nothing if not proud of the state in which I live, and through Abraham's wife, Mary Todd, he has ties to the Bluegrass.  (I live in "Lincoln" County, after all!)  Lastly, there's always a story that's not listed in the textbooks and encyclopedias.  I wanted to know more about the man, not just the powers-that-be and the image-makers want us to know about him.

Mr. Charyn's book goes above and beyond the call of duty in so many ways.  I had no idea that Lincoln was abused as a child.  He hard-scrabbled back from those experiences to be a man with a good reputation for character by many levels of society.  Lincoln faced discrimination from the people of the 'top drawer', and nearly missed out on Mary Todd because of it.  But when he believed in something, he did not let potential weaknesses stand in his way.

Lincoln also suffered from depression.  This part of the book touched me, deeply, as I have the same affliction.  Several times in Lincoln's life, friends would hide his razors for fear he would 'do himself a mischief'.  And then there's Mary.  History portrays her as more than a little *ahem* 'mixed up'.  But there was so much more to her story.  While there is no doubt she was always a little high-strung, two of her children died young, one before the White House years and one during.  My mother's heart ached for her in those chapters.

After reading any number of my reviews, you know the use of language is a big deal to me.  I Am Abraham is extremely readable.  I appreciated the tempered use of hillbilly-isms or Kentucky-isms, (especially my favorite 'you-uns') - adding just the right dash of flavor to the author's words.

If you want to know more about the 16th President of the United States, there are any number of resources through which you could research.  If you want to know more about Abraham Lincoln, the man, I can imagine no better resource than Jerome Charyn's I Am Abraham.



Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” New York Newsday hailed Charyn as “a contemporary American Balzac,”and the Los Angeles Times described him as “absolutely unique among American writers.” Since the 1964 release of Charyn’s first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn’s book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, “The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong.” Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.

For more information please visit Jerome Charyn’s website. You can also find him on Twitter and Goodreads.


Click the logo above to follow the rest of the tour, which includes more reviews, as well as interviews and GIVEAWAYS!  While you are there, you can also apply to become a reviewer for the HFVBT!

(Disclosure:  I was given a print copy of this book in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)


  1. Seems like an interesting book. One of our local museums had a Lincoln exhibit a few weeks ago closer to his birthday. I had to laugh that one of the things they mentioned in the exhibit was that his wife always went over her budget and that angered him. (I can see why). Lots of couples I'm sure could relate to that.


    1. I'm sure of that, too, Betty! At least in the White House years, though, I think we have to cut her some slack on that, as from the descriptions in the book, it seemed more like a WareHouse than a White House. There was a LOT to be done. It seemed like she was easily manipulated by some 'advisors' out for personal gain as well.

  2. Great review. Not surprised that women were captivated by Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary may have been the first known hoarder. She bought hundreds of footstools and hundreds of pairs of identical kid gloves. If Lincoln had not been reelected, her overspending, especially during wartime, would have ruined them. The novel deals with Mary's frailties but shows that Abe loved her throughout.

    1. We do say 'for better or for worse' do we not? That trait of Lincoln's is especially endearing to me, as so many people abandon loved ones with mental/emotional difficulties.

      Thanks for stopping by /and/ for the additional detail! I appreciate it very much! :O)

  3. Hi LuAnn...Thank you so much for this Review and introduction to the book and author. It is quite timely for me as I am in the Civil War and Lincoln's era in my research and documentation of my Georgia Ancestors Family Tree. Although it is a tragic time in our history, it is one of my favorite to research and read. I will definitely read this book.

    I have been browsing your blog since AJ sent her email of introduction. I am looking forward to our AtoZ teamwork and to your posts during April. Just wanted to stop by and say hello and invite you to stop by my blog.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm glad it's readable. Sometimes historical books aren't--they come across as heavy. I haven't read a presidential book in a while. I'd like to read this one.

  5. I'm adding this to my TBR. Having grown up in 'The Land of Lincoln', I read a lot about Old Abe! I actually have three Lincoln books lined up on my shelf now waiting to be read, and this one sounds like a good one to add!

  6. Very good insight of the man `Abraham Lincoln.
    I found it interesting to read that the `black recruits` were a pivotal role in winning the Civil War.