Burleigh and Hundley focus on the role that the Civil War—and specifically President Abraham Lincoln—played in the life of American poet Walt Whitman.
This is an ambitious, beautiful, bleak, and imperfect piece of historical fiction. Whitman was so affected by the strife in his politically divided country that he relocated from his home in New York to Washington to serve as a nurse to young, injured Union soldiers. The book details Whitman’s roles as a caregiver and engaged city resident but always through the context of his appreciation for the president. While imagining Whitman’s time in Washington, author Burleigh supposes several moments in which the lives of the men intersect. As Burleigh explains in his author’s note, these moments are pulled from Whitman’s own writings and are considered valid by historians, but they are given extra emotional weight in this writing. Hundley’s illustrations mirror the tone of the book impeccably, with the harsh blacks, dusty sepia, and brownish reds capturing the weight and cruelty of war. The illustrations capture a hyper-realistic Lincoln, imagining him larger than life. The added use of Whitman’s poetry throughout the text lends eloquence, and the backmatter (biographies, timeline, selected poems, endnotes, index) is weighty. Overall, the book is bold and aspirational, but its admirers will likely be educators instead of children.
A worthy supporting player in a curriculum but not the star of the show. (Historical fiction. 8-12)