Austin-area author illuminates Abraham Lincoln’s personal growth

Most schoolchildren learn about Abraham Lincoln’s history-making stance against slavery and his untimely end at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.

But most probably have no idea how close he came to an even earlier demise due to his own youthful mudslinging.

Austin-area author Donna Janell Bowman illuminates this little-known episode in her newest nonfiction picture book, “Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words” (Peachtree Publishers, $17.95). Bowman launches the book Sunday at BookPeople.

In the summer of 1842, Lincoln was a lawyer in Illinois supporting the Whig political party, and the state’s auditor, James Shields, was an ardent Democrat. They battled over a proclamation from the state government that ordered Illinois residents to pay taxes with silver or gold instead of dollars from the banks, which were in crisis.

Lincoln hatched a plan to complain — quite publicly.

He wrote a letter to the local paper in the guise of a plain-talking woman from the fictive Lost Townships. “Aunt Rebecca” complained about the proclamation and went on to dub Shields a “fool, a liar, and a ‘conceity dunce.’”

The future Mrs. Lincoln – then just Mary Todd – giggled with her girlfriend over the letter when it was printed. The two made up their own Aunt Rebecca letter and sent that one in. And then a third one appeared in the newspaper as well.

Shields had had enough. He demanded that the editors reveal who was behind the Rebecca letters, and Lincoln told them to offer just one name – his.

A flurry of accusations followed, and Shields, a celebrated marksman, challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Bowman’s telling of how Lincoln and his challenger both managed to escape unscathed is full of homespun humor and buttressed with plenty of research. It was born when Bowman — the author of 2017’s “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness,” which was named to the 2018-19 Texas Bluebonnet List — happened to read a one-sentence reference to the duel.

“The more I researched, the more I realized that Lincoln was just a regular guy who made lots of mistakes — just like the rest of us,” Bowman writes in an afterword about her inspiration for the book. While she initially worried about commemorating a less-than-savory aspect of Lincoln’s history, discovering that Lincoln himself disdained biographies that glossed over the subject’s imperfections encouraged her to persevere.

“You can bet a shiny copper penny that Abraham Lincoln’s big mistake teaches him to be a better man,” Bowman writes to her readers in the book’s conclusion. “It’s a good thing, too, because years from now there will be a … different kind of battle to fight.” (Ages 6-10)

Race and gun violence intersect in new book

We meet Jerome at the moment he becomes one of the “Ghost Boys” (Little, Brown, $16.99). Playing with a toy gun lent to him by a friend, he’s shot by a police officer who mistakes the toy for the real thing. “Towers Falling” author Jewell Parker Rhodes accomplishes an immense feat in this bittersweet, affecting middle-grade novel, depicting the heartbreak of a child’s death and querying the officer’s assumptions but never demonizing him. She also weaves in history as Jerome, who wafts through his Chicago hometown in spectral form, meets up with other ghost boys, including Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose lynching in Mississippi helped galvanize civil rights activists.

Rhodes takes us inside Jerome’s world in flashbacks that show how he was a kind and sometimes bullied young boy. When new student Carlos arrives, Jerome takes pity on him and reveals the way to eat lunch without getting picked on – hiding in the top-floor boys’ bathroom. The toy gun is Carlos’, lent to Jerome for the afternoon: “Why can’t I have some fun? Pretend I’m a rebel in ‘Rogue One’? … It’s just a toy. Why am I scared of a toy?”

From Jerome’s ghostly friendships with others who have been killed to his burgeoning connection with Sarah, the daughter of the officer who shot him, “Ghost Boys” both bears witness to the real-life shootings that inspired the novel and should prompt further questioning and debate: “My hope is that parents and teachers will read ‘Ghost Boys’ with their children and students, and discuss racial prejudices and tensions that still haunt America,” Rhodes writes in an afterword explaining her motivations. (Ages 10 and older)

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