The Emancipator’s Wife


As an avid reader of historical fiction, I like to think I’ve learned the difference between a good story and a great one. Barbara Hambly’s The Emancipator’s Wife is historical fiction at its finest.

The story opens in 1862 with a chance meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and John Wilamet, a runaway slave, who has come north in search of the Promised Land. He has arrived in Washington with his three younger siblings and a mentally deranged mother. Before long he will witness a similar trait in Mrs. Lincoln, as she moves from loving kindness to uncontrollable rage within a matter of moments. John will figure prominently in Mrs. Lincoln’s later life, too, when her only surviving son takes legal steps to have her declared insane and committed to Bellevue Place, an asylum for disturbed women of financial means. John is an assistant there and takes a special interest in her case. His quest for an understanding of mental illness has been his life’s work.

As the daughter of a state legislator, Mary Todd has a love and understanding of politics not found in women of her day and she sees a promising future for Abraham Lincoln, an awkward backwoods lawyer. We witness their tumultuous love affair and eventual marriage. In later years, her blinding migraines and overwhelming grief result in addiction to the nostrums and opium-laced cures so available at the time. The story flows well from Mary’s pampered youth in Lexington, through her adult life as wife, mother and controversial First Lady, to her final years as widow and grieving mother.

Was she insane or a victim of profound tragedy? Just when you think the story of Mary Todd Lincoln may be waning, Barbara Hambly picks up her pen and sparks our interest once more.



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