Armstrong harks back to the moral, inspirational mode of Lincoln biography which has been in eclipse in recent years, and his choice of form--semi-fictionalized and self-limited in scope--both cloaks and excuses his idealized characterization. Much of what Armstrong relates does show how the material scarcity and rugged morality of frontier life shaped Lincoln's mind in exceptional ways: the very shortage of writing materials made it imperative to learn how to make ""short words carry long thoughts,"" while exposure to the convictions of several, variously unpopular, schoolmasters with strong abolitionist views gave the young Lincoln an early opportunity to ponder the problem. And the uplifting maxims and pedagogical rigor of Dilworth's and later Webster's spelling books reveal the different sort of education to which Lincoln's generation was exposed. Except for a few passages--notably one on superstition in which it's hard to tell whether these prevalent beliefs attributed to Nancy Hanks Lincoln were really hers or are placed in her mind by Armstrong--the social background is solid and the line between fiction and fact is fairly straightforward. Armstrong also demonstrates that Lincoln's unusual abilities surfaced early and that the ""rail splitter"" image was a conscious creation. It is not the facts per se, but Armstrong's rhetorical glorification that tends to twist the Lincoln persona--and to distort his views on slavery somewhat by omission. No doubt many will welcome the return of a heroic Lincoln, but Armstrong's rugged, vernacular portrait would be just as sustaining if he had held back some of his high-flown tributes to the ""unshakable fortress of conviction"" and this ""miracle of a great man."" Like the old primers themselves, pungent and hortatory.