My Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis
Mina Edelman thinks that her family—her parents and the three girls—are the Lincolns reincarnated. Her dad, whose initials are ABE, has gotten involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the summer of 1966. Part of Mina’s job is to make sure that when the riots ensue and folks start throwing bottles and rocks at the marchers that she keeps her family safe. She is truly afraid that they will meet fates similar to the Lincolns, including murder of her father, and death through illnesses of the children. (Three of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons died young. His wife, Mary, was reported to have gone mad, though there’s debate about it .)
I decided to read this book over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday as it takes place in and around Chicago and much of the focus is on King, his speeches, and the Civil Rights Movement. And while there’s a lot here that gives the reader a window into that movement as well as background on the every day life of Abraham Lincoln and his family (and their furniture 🙂 ), much of it is pure fun because we see it all through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mina, a lovable oddball who wears a Fedora and mixes it up with the neighbor boy.
Though deeply concerned about equal rights, Mina’s dad, Albert, is often goofy and clueless about relating to others, including the African Americans with whom he marches. Objecting to the Vietnam War, he tells the wife of a neighbor turned soldier that he hopes her husband doesn’t come home in a body bag. This sets up conflict between the kids in the families. At one point, the neighbor boy, Hollister, shoots Mina with an arrow.
Albert also appears to be playing with fire as he develops a crush on Clara, the African American woman whose husband he pretends to be when they visit real estate offices, checking to see if they will be shown available houses in all-white neighborhoods. (It’s 1966—you can guess the answer.) Albert lies to his wife about his involvement in the movement.
Loosely, this can be considered a historical novel as it includes many period details—excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches, the kids playing “Viet Cong,” even a reminder of several nursing students murdered in their apartment. There is also much about the life of Abraham and Mary Lincoln that I didn’t know and found interesting. She was impoverished after his death, having spent fabulous sums that she didn’t have. Later, her surviving son had her committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. Abraham Lincoln’s coffin was opened at every train stop on its way to burial (20 days), so folks could gaze at his body.
But this is also a book about a girl growing up. She worries and wonders about the changes her body is going through, about her teen sister’s love interests. We see Dr. King through her eyes.
The author, Gayle Brandeis, will be visiting Colony High as part of the student writers’ conference on March 28. For those of you who plan to attend, I hope you’ll read this book beforehand. You can check it out from either of the school libraries. I think it leads to some good questions for the author: the period details, both the 1960s and the 1860s are outside the author’s experience. (She wasn’t born for the latter, and I don’t think she was for the former either. She certainly couldn’t have been twelve yet!) How did she come up with them? How did she use her own experiences to tap Mina’s feelings about growing up? You were twelve not so long ago. How could you tap your experiences for creative writing?