My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I really loved this book. One of the reviews I read on Goodreads compared it to The West Wing set in the Civil War era, which I would strongly agree with. Even though the plot snakes through well-known political events whose outcomes are common historical knowledge, the political maneuvering and chess matches remain gripping and the fictionalized look into some of the most important politicians of the day and the evolution of their characters, values, and relationships humanizes them and gives new perspective. Vidal makes historical events truly come alive- the scene where Lincoln confronts pro-Chase Congress members and reminds the ambitious Secretary of Treasury of his place in the administration was page-turning and as satisfying as any perfectly-executed political ploy you might see in Game of Thrones.
Vidal also refuses to demonize any character: Mary Todd’s heartbreaking narrative of her mental illness is portrayed with intensity but also empathy, and he equally refuses to place any man, including the titular president himself, on a pedestal. Lincoln is of course treated with reverence, but Vidal does not shy away from policies that today we find shameful and ludicrous, such as Lincoln’s own oft-forgot racism and his proposed Reconstructionist policy of deporting African-Americans to colonize South America. In a world where ‘alternatives facts’ is a phrase that even exists and where Sarah Palin would like to pretend the Founding Fathers were against slavery, frankness about and acknowledgment of the prejudice and racism of our nation’s most beloved figures is all too rare.
As someone who is from the DC/MD area and who has a very amateur but very enthusiastic interest in Civil War history, I also enjoyed the historical research that went into this novel. As a result of Vidal’s careful research, you truly find yourself immersed in the 19th century Washington DC and learning a lot about the period and events. In fact, you have to remind yourself to take things with a grain of salt because the genre is historical fiction, though you feel you are learning so much. (Seriously, reading this inspired, soooo many google searches / wikipedia article reads!)
If you enjoy Civil War history or media about political machinations, I definitely give this book a try. It is a lengthy novel at 600+ pages, but it went so fast, and like any good novel, leaves you feeling a little empty at the end, like the end of a journey or goodbye to a friend.