Historian (Gunfighter Nation, 1992, etc.) and novelist Slotkin (The Return of Henry Starr, 1988; The Crater, 1980) offers an impressively detailed re-creation of the early years of our myth-enshrouded 16th president. In a leisurely narrative that spans the years 1810'32, Slotkin portrays the ungainly Abe as both the muscular “rail-splitter” of popular legend and a conscientious autodidact who patiently endures his unhappy father’s exploitation of his physical strength, while slowly absorbing learning but without formal schooling (“At fourteen the boy could read and write as well as a growed man needed to, and his ciphering not far behind”). We observe the Lincoln family’s hopeful moves from Kentucky to Illinois to Indiana, and a colorful succession of experiences that challenge Abe’s courage and wit, as well as steadily shape his character: the death of his beloved “Mam” from the virulent “Milk-sick” epidemic; a vivid account of the hunt for “a wounded hungry mean smart angry bear”; misadventures in the “Gin Sang” (i.e., ginseng) trade; a revealing acquaintance with socialist Robert Owen’s experiment in communal living at “New Harmony,” Indiana; and'in the long sequence that’s the real heart of the novel'a journey by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, featuring encounters with bibulous Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, slaveholding vigilante “Regulators,” and numerous defenders and enemies of the institution of slavery itself: the moral quandary that, we infer, will raise its head again as Abe begins his career in local politics, earning fame as a debater and beginning to take an interest in lively young “Annie” Rutledge . . . at which point the story (perhaps to be followed by a sequel?) ends. Slotkin does stack the deck rather obtrusively, contriving one scene after another that emphasizes the dawning of the idea of full equality for all men in Abe’s churning mind. That objection aside, this is an absorbing, highly satisfying historical fiction: an appropriate culmination of Slotkin’s obviously herculean researches, and his best yet.