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Mary: A Novel

Behind a Very Tall Shadow

When imagining an ideal sex symbol, Abraham Lincoln does not immediately spring to mind. Yet if we are to embrace the latest novel by Janis Cooke Newman (The Russian Word for Snow), we have to consider that for one woman from Kentucky, this was just the case. Newman creates a character of Mary Todd so emboldened by her sexual urges that she hits on the future sixteenth president until he relents. As their relationship develops, she is the constant aggressor, only thwarted by Lincoln’s crippling bouts of depression.

The novel begins in the Bellevue Asylum. The year is 1875. Repelled by her constant fears of her own assassination and the frequent bills from her shopping binges, Mary’s son Robert commits her to a sanatorium. As a means of dealing with her situation, she writes her autobiography. These past musings weave with her current situation. Mary is just one of many female inmates who are encouraged to dispense with their passions. Some are told to starve themselves; others like Mary are given frequent doses of chloral hydrate to clear up the cognitive messes.

While making new friends and comparing experiences at Bellevue, Mary first takes us back to her childhood in Kentucky. After losing her own mother early in life, Mary gravitates to the slaves in her household and their penchants for séances and spiritual healing. It is during one visit with a medium that she is told that she will marry a future president. At first she thinks this might be Stephen Douglass, a man she already knows. The novel definitely accelerates when Lincoln enters the picture.

Do people really want to read a book where the author rhapsodizes about how much she wants to "get down tonight" with the future sixteenth president? You can see the awkwardness of the situation in the tone that Mary takes when speaking of her husband. She refers to him as “Mr. Lincoln” or “my husband.” Not a single “Abe” or secret pet name is established.

Newman is obviously scrupulous about her research. The question is whether her adherence to her research prevented her from really imagining what life with a tall, gangly, brilliant, melancholic man must have been like. She seems much more at ease imagining scenes between Mary and her children where the dialogue is less stilted. The loss of three of her sons is illustrated with keen tenderness. The betrayal by her eldest son smarts to the quick.

The real test of the novel is whether we could successfully put “Mr. X” in the place of “Abraham Lincoln” and find the novel entertaining. Is this book researched to the hilt? Yes. Is it a page-turner? No. While it is important that a book like this exists so that the canon of historical biographical novels can include another important, vibrant woman, the weight rests on the author to make a huge payoff for a book that is well over 500 pages long. Yes we should eat our Brussels sprouts. But we don’t want to eat 700 of them without adding all the flavor in our arsenal.

Mary: A Novel by Janis Cooke Newman
MacAdam Cage Publishers
September 8, 2006
Hardcover, $26.00
ISBN: 1-931561-63-X
705 pages