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Notes on My Recent Abduction by A. Lincoln: A Narrative Account of the John Wilkes Booth Plot to Kidnap President Lincoln

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V. A. (Victor Albert) Herbert, born in Springfield, MA, August 4, 1928, attended public schools and graduated Boston University (BS in BA) in 1950, and the University of Akron (MBA) in 1970. A life-long amateur historian who has lived and traveled extensively … see full wiki

1 review about Notes on My Recent Abduction by A. Lincoln:...

Fascinating ideas, fictional inadequacies

  • Jul 2, 2012

The cover picture and the title of this little-known small-press fiction are nearly worth the price of admission alone.  It is historical fact that John Wilkes Booth and most of the gang who would later assassinate Lincoln had originally planned in 1864 to kidnap the President and hold him for political ransom (the cover, title, and idea here have nothing to do with the later incarnation of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, not that there's anything wrong with that).  Herbert, an amateur historian and first time novelist, speculates on one possible outcome of the attempt, had Booth and his co-conspirators not backed away from the idea.

The cover is a photograph of a blindfolded Lincoln with a faint smile on his lips.  It’s a stock photo that has obviously been Photoshopped, but the image is still indelible.  How would the amazing "Original Ape" have reacted to his abduction--with that Mona Lisa smile?  And the title promises his first-person account of the event.  And here's where the disappointment creeps in that keeps me from rating this slim volume as high as I'd like.  

Some of the account is Lincoln's first-person journal of the events, but interspersed Herbert cuts away to the Federal and Confederate government reactions and the actions and dialogue of the gang of kidnappers and the American citizens they encounter.  Writing fiction is very difficult; writing realistic fictional dialogue is darn near impossible, no matter how simple it must seem to the amateur writer, and Herbert is not up to the task.  

To a person these amateur writers of historical fiction have researched their subject with diligence and professionalism, and approached the writing with a passion that shines through, but the skill of writing fiction doesn't come from either professionalism or passion.  Here is my stock advice to every first-time amateur writer of historical fiction:    Stick to the area of your strength and passion, and write a history, even if you have to expand into speculation to introduce your ideas.

And this subject is a fruitful and fascinating one for speculation, which is another reason to be frustrated with the choice to write a fiction with a single track through the speculation.  It would have been much more interesting for Herbert to have laid out his research and ideas to discuss each might-have-been in detail:
  • How and where would Lincoln  have been taken captive?  The President, as all politicians, was frighteningly accessible then, and any group with a criminal or political agenda could have easily accomplished what seems now unthinkable.  Indeed, it was Lincoln's assassination the next year that started to raise the barriers of separation between the President and his people.
  • How would Mary Lincoln have reacted?  Lincoln is taken while he and Mrs. Lincoln are out for a carriage ride, and Mrs. Lincoln is returned alone to the White House when the gang splits up.  While she is a minor character in Herbert's account, one wonders if she would have found an inner strength to deal with yet another personal tragedy, or would this have been a mind-breaking event that left her unable to cope?
  • How would the Federal government have reacted?  Herbert's take is interesting and probably right:  while the President's cabinet set in motion a manhunt to try to recover Lincoln, Copperheads (anti-war Northerners) in Congress (and his own Vice President Hamlin) took the opportunity to set a deadline for Lincoln to be recovered or for the office to be declared vacated to Hamlin.  The move was backed by McClellan, the general who Lincoln had already fired and disgraced but was now his 1864 election opponent.  
  • Was Booth a rogue, or an agent of the Confederate government?  Herbert leans toward the former, with Jefferson Davis wavering on how to respond, before deciding to make use of the political influence of the kidnapping to bolster his country's fading hopes of a negotiated end to the war.  
  • How would Southern citizens have reacted if they encountered the abducted Lincoln?  Some, like his captor John Surratt, would be captivated by Lincoln's homey personality, while others would find the Great Emancipator the flesh-and-blood enemy whose Northern hordes had killed their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers and reproach him bitterly with words and deeds.
  • Which leads to the final and ultimate question:  would Lincoln have survived the abduction, and would the attempt have achieved its political goals?  I won't give away the game here, but to say that here is where the fiction is much too abrupt and simplistic to be realistic, and the historian's ability to reason through the evidence and suggest alternative paths is perhaps most missed.

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July 03, 2012
Good detailed review!
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