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Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘I Am Abraham’: inside the mind and heart of Lincoln

Jerome Charyn’s new novel, “I Am Abraham,” successfully puts the reader inside the head and heart of Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest and most troubled presidents.

The Dallas Morning News

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‘I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War’

by Jerome Charyn

Liveright, 480 pp., $26.95

I am not a Lincoln scholar. I wasn’t even particularly interested in Lincoln before reading this book. I probably didn’t know anything about him I hadn’t learned by junior high school.

In fact, I’m not so different from most people who will read “I Am Abraham.” Nor from Jerome Charyn, who begins his author’s note: “I never liked Lincoln.” Not until he discovered a book exploring Lincoln’s bouts of depression that revealed a new and complex Lincoln to him, one with “his own quiet menace and a poetic voice.”

Charyn has taken the audacious step of writing in the first person, as Lincoln. That’s fraught with danger, and a bit of mystery: Can Charyn bring this off?

It’s impossible to know how people conversed in the mid-1800s; we have no recordings, of course, and it’s doubtful that conversations in novels give us an accurate picture.

It is tough to pin down exactly how Charyn makes Lincoln’s observations sound of another time without sounding artificial. The secret, perhaps, is that he sprinkles in just enough period references (pantaloons, prairie schooners, crushed crinolines), and has his characters speak ever-so-slightly more formally than we might. He doesn’t so much shove us into the past as suggest our presence there.

One tic is obtrusive: Charyn’s seemingly random use of italic type. If there is a pattern, I couldn’t fathom it. Still, it’s a minor aggravation, and Charyn’s writing sometimes rises to a lyrical level that washes any quibbles aside. Here’s Lincoln observing himself in a White House mirror:

“I was frightened of my own face. It wasn’t my sunken cheeks. I was getting used to that. I’d become a bag of bones. It was the terror on my brow — fierce and unfriendly as an open sore.”

In presenting Lincoln to us in the first person, Charyn obligates himself to place us where no author has before — inside Lincoln’s head. We feel, as another president notably said, his pain. And his joy, his insecurities, his challenges as a family man and as a national leader.

Charyn gets the obvious out of the way posthaste; the assassination is dispensed with in the prologue. As the book begins in earnest, we’re thrust back 30-plus years, to Illinois in 1831, where we discover Lincoln to be a displaced, ungainly (and randy) brawler, and hardly the moving speechmaker he would become. We share his early career, his first love, his deep depression over her death, his courtship of the alluring but mercurial Mary Todd.

Then we’re jerked forward a quarter century with an unsettling abruptness. Did Lincoln do nothing of interest between 1842 and 1858? But the book is subtitled, after all, “A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War,” and patient readers will realize eventually that the first quarter of the book is groundwork for us to understand the complex, tortured President Abe Lincoln — and the even more complex and tortured Mary Lincoln.

These days, Mary Lincoln would certainly be medicated for depression, at the least. But Lincoln had his own bouts with depression, while contending with recalcitrant generals, oppositional Cabinet members, the death of a child and the guilt of sending innocent boys off to war. Charyn paints sometimes phantasmagoric scenes of Illinois, of Washington, of battlegrounds and of beaten and war-ripped Richmond.

What we end up with is a deeper understanding of Lincoln as a flawed and haunted man, not just a character flattened between the pages of a history textbook.

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