Audiobook Review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

22 08 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

Read by Paul Boehmer

Random House Audio

Length: 22 Hrs 45 Min

Genre: Historical Fiction/Alternate History

Quick Thoughts: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a well plotted tale, with a touch of romance, action and a whole lot of betrayal, set against one of the more misunderstood periods of American History. While Carter tends to weigh down his prose with some unnecessary exposition, he fills his tales with complex and interesting characters and steeps them in a rich and divisive history.

Grade: B

It seems every time my television accidentally tunes into one of the 24 Hour Newsertainment channels, or I stumble across a group of people discussing some hot topic working its way through our legislature I encounter a statement by someone on just how divisive politics have become. They talk about how our legislature and media have lost their sense of civility in the debate and discussion of current issues. I often think it would be nice to take a trip in their brains to when legislative bodies were a gentlemanly sport of friendly banter and constructive give and take. Back when the news media stayed unbiased when reporting events, and ethically avoided even the appearance of impropriety. This is a land where "Fair and balanced’ was not just a witty rejoinder made to rub in the faces of everyone that this state is in fact, it’s exact opposite. In this world, children are paid in lollipops to clean the streets that are unlittered and full of elaborately dressed women wishing them good day. Everyone worked 9-5 with an hour for lunch, and only had to come in on the weekend for the rare emergency. I like to call this land that existed before we lost our civility, Fairytale town, ruled over by The Good Lady Pipe Dream. One of the things I like about well researched historical fiction is it gives us a taste of the reality of those good old days so many dream of, often throwing dirt over their pristine reputations. I think that the true reasons that our politics seems so unseemly, and our news coverage overly biased is because we just have more information today. We have more access to the machinations of government then ever before. We have numerous cable news stations that spend more time covering what the other channels cover than the actual news. America’s history is full of biased news coverage. If you think the coverage of Gay Marriage is contentious, you should see the battlers between the newspapers supporting the Rebels, and those loyal to England during the American Revolution. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, while an alternate history, takes place during a time where Congress and the Executive branch were constantly at each others throats. Impeachment threats were a tool use often by congress to attempt to reign in the power of the Executive. It was divisive, and not very civil. Sound familiar?

In The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln author Stephen L. Carter asks a fascinating "What if?" What if, on the fateful night at a small Washington Theatre, Lincoln met with grave injury at the hands of a traitorous actor, yet managed to pull through. What if the attempted assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson actually succeeded and Mary Todd Lincoln dies in a tragic accident. These changes, as well as many other historical alterations set the stage for a complex tale of treason, espionage, and murder. As the Radical elements of Lincoln’s own party accuse him of going too soft on the South and attempting to turn his position as President into a Tyranny, a young colored women named Abigail Canner gets hired as a clerk for the firm defending the President. After one of the firm’s lawyers is murdered, Abigail and her fellow clerk, the white upper crust Jonathon Hilliman, get entangled in a messy conspiracy aimed to bring down the president and subvert justice. First, I should point out, this is a work of fiction. While Carter pulls heavily on actually history, he also takes liberties with history and social mores when it suits the plot. Carter has managed to create a fascinating story that gives us a good glimpse at the diversity of Washington Society right after the end of the Civil War. While a lot of the early parts of the novel are heavy in professorial exposition, he makes up for it with a compelling, if not a bit overly complicated plot, and some wonderful characters both historic and fictional. One of the more fascinating elements of the novel is Abigail’s navigation through the social society of Washington. As one will imagine she has a seemingly overwhelming number of obstacles to overcome set up by a very racist society, yet even more fascinating is the responses she gets from the so called supportive element which are often even more demeaning. Part of me wondered if she, being black and a women, could actually have accomplished many of the things she did in the novel, but again, this is of course fiction and some level of suspension of disbelief is required. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a well plotted tale, with a touch of romance, action and a whole lot of betrayal, set against one of the more misunderstood periods of American History. While Carter tends to weigh down his prose with some unnecessary exposition, he fills his tales with complex and interesting characters and steeps them in a rich and divisive history.

In many ways, my feelings about the narration echoes my feelings about the book, it was good, but it could have been better. I really don’t fault Paul Boehmer for some of the issues I have. He is an excellent narrator who can handle a wide cast and really shines during fast paced, intensive scenes. In particular, in this novel, he handles the actual Impeachment trial scenes wonderfully, and his pacing and tone on the action scenes were impeccable. The problem was, this novel exposes some of his weaknesses as a narrator. Boehmer’s tone becomes a bit dry and mechanical during many of the long expositional parts of the prose, and since this novel is plagued with them in the beginning, it takes a while to really get into the novel. I think that casting a narrator like Dion Graham who can pull the beauty out of the driest text could have bolstered this story a lot. I think this was one of those books that needed something more than just a solid, professional narrator. I think it would have benefited from an African American, or even female narrator. I would love to hear the transitions between mild mannered but opinionated Abigail, and the society women that someone like Katherine Kellgren would pull off. I should reiterate that Boehmer does a good job, especially in the latter moments of the book, yet, I couldn’t help maybe wanting just a bit more for this novel. 

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