Lincoln’s Dreams

By Connie Willis

Book Cover: Lincoln's DreamsSo, with all the movies about Lincoln cropping up (I’m counting Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter as ‘all the movies’), I was inspired to reread Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams, which I’d only read once many years ago.

It is a bit of a mess, I’m afraid.

It also turns out to be just the second novel she wrote, which explains a lot.

There are four central characters to the book, and while there are other peripheral characters coming in and out of scenes, the whole book focuses on the tension between these four: an author writing a novel about the Civil War, his research assistant, a young woman having persistent dreams about the Civil War, and her doctor, who is also the old college roommate of the research assistant.

(With the limited characters and settings, it occurred to me that this could actually be made into an interesting stage play, though the script would definitely need some tightening-up. This is the one nice thing I’m going to say about it.)

Actually, one more compliment: each chapter begins with a piece of trivia about the Civil War, and the research assistant describes more within the chapters. For those readers like me who want a lot of narrative with their nonfiction, this is the most palatable way to take in Civil War facts. (I also know from Connie Willis’ other books that she is extremely interested in history and does meticulous research for her novels, so I trust her historical accuracy.)

Okay, now on to the savaging. About a third into the book, I started noticing that the single female character didn’t have very many actual lines, and when she does speak she is often interrupted or instructed by a male character.* The woman is pretty much the central character, around which the three male characters orbit, so it took me longer than it should have to notice what an extremely passive character she was, really more of a target for the male characters’ expressions of emotion than a character in her own right. Even the final climax of the book, in which the cause of her dreams is discovered, supports the idea of her as a vessel to be filled with male ideas rather than a fully functioning person.

From reading Willis’ other books, I trust that she was actually doing this on purpose, and making a commentary on how, by trying to protect people we care about, we can end up marginalizing them, and thus doing more harm than good. It ends up being kind of a pat observation, though, and is not sufficiently explored enough for me. I have to admit that I might be being a bit unfair to Willis, though; I find that I am judging her early books in comparison to her later books, and then criticizing them for not being nearly as good.

The final thing is, though, that I would actually continue to recommend this book to people. Certainly not as an introduction to Connie Willis (for that, read To Say Nothing of the Dog), and not even as a good read, necessarily, but definitely a book that gives a different and interesting viewpoint of the Civil War and even wars in general, and for that I still consider it completely worth-while.

—Anna

*This is becoming a bit of a bee in my bonnet, actually. I’ve just recently started noticing that female television pundits get interrupted and talked over a lot more than male pundits. I know that shouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t, really; it just makes me really mad at how blatant it all is.

3 comments on “Lincoln’s Dreams

  1. Kinsey says:

    Yeah, as much as I love Connie Willis, I remember thinking that Lincoln’s Dreams was just odd. I felt like she was still working things out. It’s been years since I read it, but I also remember it being much, much darker than her usual stuff, which tends to be pretty hopeful.

    Also, in reference to your footnote, I thought you might enjoy this:

    http://mansplained.tumblr.com/

    • Anna says:

      You know, I had remembered it as being super dark, as well, and it certainly wasn’t cheerful by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t quite as grim as I’d remembered. Maybe I’d just really exaggerated the soul-crushing in my head, so that it had to fall short of that.

      By the way, I LOVE mansplained! My mom has told me similar stories, and I read an online essay a few months ago written by a woman describing going to a party and having a male guest recommend a book in her field that she should read that it turned out she herself had written.

  2. Anna says:

    So, I’m popping back in to say that I went and saw “Lincoln” over the Christmas break, and having read this book actually added to my experience, so it was a valuable addition. In the movie, there is only a quick scene at Appomattox Courthouse, with limited dialogue, but from this book I was able to fill in a lot of the background.

    The same scene shows General Lee, though he is unnamed in the movie, slowly turning his horse away from the courthouse, and I knew from reading this book that General Lee, in fact, loved his horse, Traveler, only second to his family, and Lincoln allowed the Confederates to keep their horses as a sign of mercy.

    So, I was even more happy to have read this book, even though it wasn’t quite as good as I’d remembered.

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