The House of Lincoln

Written by Nancy Horan
Review by Mark G. Spencer

Nancy Horan, best-selling author of Loving Frank, offers a captivatingly sweeping historical novel centered on Abraham Lincoln, 19th-century Springfield, Illinois, and early American race relations.

We first see Lincoln—an up-and-coming eccentric lawyer and soon-to-be famous President—through the eyes of young Ana Ferreira, a domestic servant in Lincoln’s expanding household. Herself a daughter of Portuguese Protestant exiles, recently migrated from Madeira via Trinidad, Ana’s best friend is an African American girl, the equally “coltish” Cal Patterson. These two fictional characters introduce us to others, some invented but mostly historical. There is Lincoln’s troubled wife Mary (Todd); sons Willie, Tad, and eldest Robert; even Fido, the family dog. Famous figures from Lincoln’s times include Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the so-called “Little Giant,” and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Several important characters are lesser-known-folk, like the Donnegan brothers: Spencer, founding pastor of Springfield’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (a barber, he advertises as a “Tonsorial Professor”); and cobbler William, a secret “conductor” for the Underground Railroad.

Horan’s narrative begins in the politically fraught 1850s—taking in, for instance, the Fugitive Slave Act, the American Colonization Society initiative, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. We watch political machinations develop as unrest turns to Southern succession and the horrors of Civil War. With balanced and efficient prose, Horan seamlessly intertwines invented dialogue and historical documents, such as Lincoln’s farewell address to Springfield delivered the morning of 11 February 1861 from his departing train as the newly elected President sets off for Washington, DC, confidently hoping “that all will yet be well.” Later, through an aged Ana’s eyes, we experience the 1908 Springfield Race Riot, learning with her that racial discrimination did not end at Appomattox. The House of Lincoln provides a compelling but tragic story, artfully conveyed by Horan who interweaves daily lives of various stripes with the glory and despair of 19th-century American history.