“Stephen Carter turns out to be a surprisingly good writer . . .”
What if Abraham Lincoln had somehow survived assassination at the end of the Civil War?
Those what-ifs of alternative history can make fascinating reading. But Stephen Carter’s central conceit—that Lincoln lived only to endure Reconstruction’s postwar migraines and even impeachment—is not the only one in his ambitious 500-page novel.
His central character is Abigail Canner, a young black woman and recent graduate of Oberlin College, since Ole Miss wasn’t into affirmative action programs back then.
A 19th century combination of Condoleezza Rice and Vanessa Williams, Abigail is so beautiful that men and women fall all over her on every other page. Although only a humble law clerk (and occasional cleaning lady) at Dennard & McShane, the firm hired to defend Lincoln, she is catapulted into the action when old man McShane is murdered outside Madam Sophie’s, one of Washington’s better brothels.
The races meet more easily at establishments like Madam Sophie’s than anywhere else, so Abigail’s growing attraction to Jonathan Hilliman, a young white attorney at Dennard & McShane, is one of the book’s central themes.
Professor Carter is delicate in his portrayal of the resulting tensions: the office romance so forbidden that it cannot even be hinted at; Jonathan’s gradual awareness that Abigail is smarter than he is; and his equally troubling realization that his engagement to a well-connected socialite is ill-fated. Jonathan and Abigail’s only romantic interlude occurs during a momentary embrace to escape a menacing street gang.
“They did not kiss. Not quite. But her face was rubbing against his neck, and her body was warm and springy in his arms. She squirmed deliciously as Jonathan hugged her tightly to him. He was confused and delighted, and for a lovely moment quite lost. . . .” Hey, Mandingo it ain’t!
But Professor Carter is a student of both law and history who provides a spot-on portrait of 19th century political subterfuge and the forces behind them. His treatment of the impeachment trial, as well as the calculus of Lincoln’s legal team, is exactly what the reader expects from a Yale law professor deftly navigating the courtroom collisions of ambitious men.
General Dan Sickles is rehabilitated from his ignominious mistakes at Gettysburg to become Lincoln’s most reliable friend—and sufficiently devious to manipulate and conceal evidence without qualms. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, is presented here as imperious as he was in real life. Concealing neither his brilliance nor his ambitions, Stanton’s contemporaries asked the same question about him the author resurrects in these pages:
Just whose side was he really on, anyway?
Abigail and Jonathan struggle against a web of intrigue woven by Radical Republicans seeking to penalize and subjugate the South, precisely the same ones who actually impeached, but did not convict, President Andrew Johnson. Those men occasionally surface in the novel, a murder here or an arson there, suddenly eliminating potential allies sought by Lincoln’s team.
Removing inconvenient pawns is what any good chess-master does: But how well does that work for the novelist? In particular, how convincingly does Stephen Carter manipulate the plot-strings behind the scenes?
His characters can be more convincing than their roles, which in 500 pages are not always easy to track without a program. But the novel has two main problems. First, if you are going to present a web of intrigue, then take a lesson from Stephen King and make sure that a suitably horrific spider lurks somewhere just out of sight. Even better, make sure that Pennywise gets a thorough comeuppance at the end—good over evil, love triumphant—the spidery clown relegated to a shuddery memory. That just doesn’t happen in this novel.
The second difficulty is scale, the familiar—and continuing—problem for anyone writing about the American Civil War. It was our second American revolution. Like the first, it asked and answered so many fundamental questions at so many different levels that the writer can barely pick up a twig without unearthing whole subterranean root systems.
Professor Carter has written a love story, a murder mystery, a historical novel, a political science drama, and a highly nuanced narrative of American race relations. Small wonder that it took him 500 pages to do it.
Especially for a law professor, Stephen Carter turns out to be a surprisingly good writer, someone you can spend an agreeable summer season with, pondering afterward the book’s final scene with Abigail and Jonathan:
Jonathan gave a final try. “Don’t you ever wonder if—”
“Constantly,” she said, and left him.