The First Lady and the Rebel
Sisterhood can be a powerful thing, but sometimes it provides a dividing line. Susan Higginbotham’s The First Lady and the Rebel is a fine exploration of familial and romantic love and how its bonds can be strained by the forces of a cruel outside world.
Mary Todd and her baby half-sister, Emily, are close even though there’s a large age gap between them. Emotionally anxious Mary is eventually drawn to the tall young lawyer Abraham Lincoln; she marries him and they begin to raise a family while Abe pursues politics.
When Emily turns eighteen she comes to stay with Mary, Abe and their boisterous sons but finds that society life there doesn’t provide her with the suitor she seeks. Back home, and at the first ball of the season, she’s introduced to a rising lawmaker named Benjamin Hardin Helm (whom she calls Hardin), who proves to be just right for her. She marries him and has two daughters by the time Honest Abe becomes president. But Abe denies Hardin a cabinet position and denies other positions to Mary’s dissolute half-brother, an act that devastates Emily; and when the succession of the south occurs, Hardin volunteers for Jefferson Davis’ government while Mary stays loyal to her own husband. When war brews, the sisters find themselves on opposing ends of the battle. As mothers and wives, they try to raise their families against enormous odds – but will their sisterly relationship be the war’s ultimate casualty?
Well-told and engaging, The First Lady and the Rebel does a good job of covering the scope of the war, the small moments of parental bonding and the ups and downs of the sister’s marital lives. Most important of all is the detailed and sometimes strained sisterly bond that keeps the Todd sisters in contact.
Every character is well-rounded and flawed. Higginbotham does a particularly good job humanizing the often cartoonishly portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln, who’s redeemed from both clingy spendthrift-ness and operatic madness with sagacity, sadness, intelligence and wit. She feels fully fleshed out, a kindness most Lincoln-centric novels tend not to afford her. Emily has a certain toughness under her velveteen surface though; it shows up in her kids. While Mary has and loses rambunctious sons, Emily has and keeps rambunctious daughters. They each love their law-loving husbands, though one is much more stubborn and bitter than the other. They each cast their lots in with the men they love, though Mary is extremely politically astute and has many opinions on the day’s events. Mary sees Emily as a ‘good little wife’, while Emily sees Mary as a towering giant too unfathomably large to grapple with.
I didn’t have much familiarity with Emily’s place in American history so I must say that the author did a fine job yanking her out of the shadows of Mary’s life and making Emily her own woman; somewhat more the victim of her husband’s actions, but not willing to give up the ghost. She is rash and emotional in different ways from Mary, and that mutual rashness causes them both lots of trouble.
Among the supporting characters, I found the children particularly entertaining. The book tries to reckon with many different issues – with feminism and female independence, and with the evils of slavery, which is never properly dealt with (the author tries to give Emily a maid named Maggie, but, seen as she is through Emily’s eyes, she never feels like more than a catalyst for thought or lack thereof in Emily’s life). Those chapters could’ve used a tad more juice, a little more emotion on the part of Maggie.
Another problem the book has – its prose style is very, very dry. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it feels like one is stuck reading a very long history lesson.
The First Lady and the Rebel would have received an A-grade had it received a little bit of judicious trimming; the reader ends up feeling those long middle stretches between major events. But as-is, it’s an enjoyable and solid piece of historical fiction.