Vel combines fiction and history in this unorthodox account of the life of President Abraham Lincoln.
As previous biographies of the Great Emancipator have done, this volume recounts Lincoln’s life from his humble origins in Kentucky to his assassination in Ford’s Theatre. What Vel does differently, however, is to lay a thick filter of non-Western mythology over the tale. After a “Forewarning” that includes a few fables from the Indian subcontinent, the author introduces a frame narrative that involves a God and a Goddess traveling around the world. After they witness a slave auction that offends the Goddess’ moral sensibilities, the two deities work together to create a man who will end slavery in America. They take turns, with each offering attributes that they think will help this favored being. They don’t always agree; for example, as the Goddess reviews God’s assigned attributes, she asks, “Restlessness, melancholy and transience! Are you blessing or cursing?” The biography then begins in earnest, relating each section of Lincoln’s life as a sequence of anecdotes, quotes, and memories, often with the help of a first-person narrator. Vel inhabits the voices of various witnesses to the president’s life, from obscure figures such as Dennis Hanks (Lincoln’s second cousin) and William H. Herndon (Lincoln’s law partner and biographer) to such notables as statesman Frederick Douglass and Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. The God and Goddess also pop back in from time to time to observe Lincoln’s progress and offer supplemental information, such as an account of abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Vel doesn’t appear to have done any original research for the book; footnotes show that most of the historical information came from the same four Lincoln biographies. Aside from the deities and narrators, the reading experience is much more akin to that of nonfiction than fiction; the mix of diary entries, annotations, and apocrypha never fuses into any cohesive narrative. But because Vel offers almost no commentary or historical context, the book does present an intriguing picture of Abraham Lincoln as a semidivine folk hero—a product of a backward present and yet somehow removed from time.
A thoroughly idiosyncratic work of biographical collage.