ISBN 10: 015603347X / ISBN 13: 9780156033473
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A fascinating and intimate novel of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, narrated by the First Lady herself

 

Mary Todd Lincoln is one of history’s most misunderstood and enigmatic women. She was a political strategist, a supporter of emancipation, and a mother who survived the loss of three children and the assassination of her beloved husband. She also ran her family into debt, held seances in the White House, and was committed to an insane asylum—which is where Janis Cooke Newman’s debut novel begins. From her room in Bellevue Place, Mary chronicles her tempestuous childhood in a slaveholding Southern family and takes readers through the years after her husband’s death, revealing the ebbs and flows of her passion and depression, her poverty and ridicule, and her ultimate redemption.

Review: Mary is a novel written in the first person, comprised of notes composed by Mary Todd Lincoln when she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum. She takes up her pen to block out the screams and moans of the other inmates and to save her own sanity. According to these notes, although she held séances in the White House and drove her family deeply into debt because of compulsive shopping, she was perfectly sane. She makes a good case for herself, despite occasional manic behavior and often uncontrollable grief.

Mary was born to southern slaveholders in Kentucky, moved to Illinois when she was 20 to live with her sister and met Abe at a cotillion. His opening line was "Miss Todd, I want to dance with you the worst way." Their relationship was odd, to say the least. Lincoln, as portrayed by Janis Cooke Newman, was sexually repressed and feared Mary's passion. She was in an almost constant state of trying to seduce him, usually without success. Despite his gawky, angular, unlovely looks, she adored him--even when she had an affair with another to defuse some of her heat. How much of the bedroom scene is fact and how much fancy must be left to the reader to decide, but it does give credence to Mary's very forward manner and her later "passionate" approach to shopping.

She used her shopping expeditions to accumulate things that would "protect" her family--and finally herself, when she felt her son Robert's growing disapproval of her. In his statement to the "insanity" lawyer, Robert said, "I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me. She has no home and no reason to make these purchases." Mary saw them as talismans against disaster, and she certainly had suffered disasters in abundance. She buried three sons and was holding her husband's hand when he was assassinated by a bullet to the head. Her eldest son, Robert, was a cold, unfeeling, haughty shell of a man to whom Mary did not speak after she was released from the asylum to her sister's care. She spent four years in Europe and, when her health failed, returned to her sister's house, where she received her son once before she died.

"First Lady" is a term that was coined to describe Mary Todd Lincoln, while she was the President's wife. It was meant as a backhanded compliment, because she was front and center during much of Lincoln's term. Presidential wives usually stuck to their knitting, but not Mary. Her unconventional ways did her husband a great deal of good; indeed, it was her ambition for him that finally ignited his own ambition. She also helped him to become a great orator. Ultimately, her "unsexed" manner contributed to her being judged insane in 1865 and committed to Bellevue Place, an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, outside Chicago. No President has been more praised nor any first lady more vilified than Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Janis Cooke Newman brings a time, a place and a person to life in a wholly believable and compelling manner. --Valerie Ryan

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