Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln
By Patricia Polacco
There is a huge resurgence in interest this year in the 16th president of the United States, one Abraham Lincoln. Not that there was any doubt of a wane in his popularity given the fact that he preserved the Union, ended the Civil War, freed the slaves following that war via the Emancipation Proclamation and with the 13th Amendment, ended institutional slavery. His place in the pantheon of presidents has always been pretty much guaranteed.
But with Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln” up for a lion’s share of Academy Awards come Oscar time, a much more fully rendered portrait of Lincoln emerges. With an authentically high- pitched voice that is supposedly historically correct, Daniel Day Lewis captures Lincoln as a compassionate, but canny politician consumed with passing the 13th Amendment and is universe to political patronage to manage it. Anyone seeing pictures of Lincoln before and after the Civil War can have no doubt of the personal toll the war took on him. Each death seems permanently etched on his face.
With Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln, Patricia Polacco merges time travel and its effect on the outcomes of history. If you want to find a way to infuse young readers with history and its ensuing facts that may, to them appear dry as dust, Ms. Polacco’s talents both narratively and artistically are up to the task.
Meet Michael and Derek, two typical kids visiting Harpers Ferry Civil war Museum with their grandmother. Weighed down with iPods, cell phones and video games, boarding the sleeper car bound for Washington is, as they say, “Way cool.” That is until grandma outlaws all electronics on the trip. Bummer!
A lucky penny slipped into Derek’s pocket proves to be an all-important fact later in the story as proof that time travel is possible. Watch for it in the story!
Just as important to the story’s unfolding is their introduction to the mysterious balding and red scarfed Mr. Portufoy, expert on the Civil War and collector of Civil War uniforms, rifles and photographs if Mathew Brady. Mr. Brady was a famous photographer of Civil War battlegrounds.
Boredom gives way to curiosity. The boys innocently pronounce the Civil War “Way Cool”. As they view cannons, guns, and bayonets in the museum, Derek boasts about a video game he has about the Battle of Gettysburg where he sets a record eliminating 400 of the enemy!
There is a real disconnect between the dead in the video game and the lives lost at Gettysburg.
Mr. Portufoy slyly suggests he has a few uniforms just their size tucked away. “Danger Will Robinson!” as the robot intoned in the show “Lost in Space.”
He then suggests something better than a video game and all they have to do is walk through a giant wooden door. He tells them they will come out the other side just after the Battle of Antietam. Imagine a bit of The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe.
They will eat what soldiers eat, see what they see and walk where they walk and most importantly, MEET whom they meet! But reminiscent of Cinderella, they are told explicitly as a gold watch is placed in their hands, that they must, as they hear the watch chime, be back to the door one hour before the sun begins to set. They are warned not to tell anyone who they are or anything about modern life! They will enter the time of 1862! Would you believe Mr. Portufoy?
They do meet Matthew Brady, and finally Abraham Lincoln himself, as he surveys the carnage of war alongside Derek and Michael causing Lincoln to wonder if anything is worth the terrible sacrifice of loss of life.
Will Derek and Michael return to the time portal at the designated hour or be trapped forever in 1862? And how can they prove to Lincoln they are from the future? This is where that lucky penny figures prominently.
Ms. Polacco has written a vivid recounting of Antietam with its 23,000 dead and wounded, as the Union and Confederate forces suffer the biggest losses of any single day of the war.
But getting back to time travel, if such a thing is impossible, how do the boys explain Matthew Brady photographer’s photo, on the wall of the museum in the present, taken of them outside Lincoln’s tent alongside General McClellan?
If museums are a sort of portal to the past, then Ms. Polacco has fashioned a most interesting, realistic and unsentimental story that reinforces the consequences and price of war. It is riveting and a perfect read for Presidents Week. If you want to capture the true feel of Lincoln’s frame of mind during the Civil War and the price it extracted from him, Ms. Polacco’s searing book cover speaks volumes.
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