That Nation Might Live

Written by Jeff Oppenheimer
Review by Laura Fahey

Jeff Oppenheimer’s historical fiction debut takes the form of a “deposition” made by Abraham Lincoln’s best friend and erstwhile law partner, William Herndon, in the form of ten long interviews he had with Sarah Bush Lincoln, the slain president’s aged stepmother, in the years after Lincoln’s death. It is a simple narrative conceit that Oppenheimer handles extremely subtly and extremely well, an enticingly unconventional way to tell some of the stories of Lincoln’s life from the viewpoint of the woman who found him as little more than a wild animal and gradually, patiently shaped him and believed in him – and lived long enough to see him become President of the United States.

Oppenheimer creates a persona for old, frail Mrs. Lincoln that is entirely convincing, a strong-willed and rough-hewn woman who is to a very real extent brought to life by the stories Herndon carefully extracts from her as they sit together by the fire, Her recollections necessarily give us a very different Lincoln than we are accustomed to meeting in historical fiction (or even in most biographies). The combination of these ten stories, set in Oppenheimer’s framing sequences, is a novel whose punch is belied by its short length. Recommended.