Many people aren’t aware that Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years in Southern Indiana, moving there from Kentucky with his family at age seven, leaving with them when he was 21.
It’s these years that Jan Jacobi, an avid Lincoln enthusiast and an award-winning educator who currently is teaching at St. Michael School of Clayton in St. Louis, chronicles in Young Lincoln (Reedy Press $16.95), his recently released book for readers ages 12 to 16.
Growing up in New York, Jacobi moved to St. Louis in 1992 to take a teaching job and says he quickly realized how close his new home was to areas where Lincoln had lived including Southern Indiana and Springfield, Illinois, inspiring him to read book after book about the president.
“One of my students asked me if there was a book he could read about young Lincoln,” recalls Jacobi who because of his towering height is frequently asked to portray the president. “I said there really wasn’t one for his age range. And he told me that I should write one then.”
Jacobi’s publisher agreed but with one more stipulation. He should write it in first person, using the voice of Lincoln as a youngster.
“I thought no one can do that,” says Jacobi. “But then gradually the voice came to me—I just had to marinate in it.”
Spending time in Spencer County, Indiana where Lincoln grew up, Jacobi talked to some of the residents whose ancestors had been friends of the Lincoln family. They shared with him their views of the Lincolns that had been passed down generation after generation.
Thomas Lincoln has always been somewhat of a cipher—the youngest and least successful of three brothers who all witnessed the death of their father, another Abraham Lincoln, who was shot and killed by a Native American . When the future president was a youngster, Thomas Lincoln was a harsh father but that wasn’t unusual in pioneer days. Thomas also thought his son was wasting his time reading and learning and tried to discourage it. Young Lincoln, in turn, was contemptuous of his father’s illiteracy and failures to get ahead in life and sought the mentorship of other men in the community who were learned and successful. Southern Indiana at that time was a wilderness where cougars and bears were always a menace, food was often scarce and life was harsh and often deadly. Lincoln’s mother died after contracting milk sickness as did a friend she’d been nursing for the same disease; his sister died in childbirth.
As an adult, when his father was on his deathbed, Lincoln, now a successful lawyer, refused to visit him despite the appeals of his step-mother with whom he was exceptionally close and his step-brother. When Thomas died, Lincoln didn’t attend his funeral.
“People in Southern Indiana are kinder to his father,” says Jacobi. “I’m a little harder on him.”
How did Lincoln develop the resiliency that would allow him to overcome his early adversity to lead the country during one of its most tumultuous periods is a question that Jacobi says he has longed tried to answer.
“Lincoln is a remarkable human being,” he says. “There are so many dimensions to him. We have to be careful not to turn him into a saint; but his essential goodness speaks to me.”
So much so, that Jacobi is planning his next book about Lincoln’s time in Springfield.
“Lincoln is endlessly fascinating,” says Jacobi. “He is the quintessential American. The only other person I put in that category is Mark Twain.”
What: Jan Jacobi discusses Young Lincoln. He will be joined in conversation by syndicated columnist Steve Chapman. A Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.
When: Saturday, September 22 at 3 p.m.
Where: 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St, Chicago, IL
FYI: 773-684-1300; semcoop.com