Adam Braver’s novel Mr. Lincoln’s Wars: A Novel in Thirteen Stories is unique in that it is the only book I know of that can be read backwards. The novel begins with a story about the death of Lincoln’s son Willie and ends with Willie’s conception – a device that neatly frames the otherwise unrelated stories that comprise the bulk of the novel. I was curious about this hybrid of a book: you either have a novel or you have a collection of short stories (sometimes sharing a common thread), but rarely do you have both. I would like to say that Braver succeed, but unfortunately he does not. Each chapter is headed by a quote, followed by a date, which is normally a way to place the story in some sort of historical and chronological context. Not this time. I soon found out that the chapter headings were unrelated to the story. Imagine the movie Memento in book form and you’ll have an idea of what reading this novel is like.
I confess I’m no Lincoln scholar, but like most people I never tire of reading about the Civil War. Braver’s short stories are filled with conjecture -- he takes the idea of “what if” to a new level. The stories are peopled with characters and events that are a combination of peripheral and intimate moments of Lincoln’s life. I could accept that; I love a good historical rewrite as much as the next person, but I was less forgiving of Braver’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln as a shrewish woman pushed to the brink of madness by grief. In "The Willie Grief," the horrors of a Civil War hospital dominate what could have otherwise been an insightful story about Mary. The best story is "The Necropsy," which follows the events John Wilkes Booth set in motion. Braver manages to encompass the following threads: Booth’s motivation, emancipation, an autopsy and presidential red tape all in one very tidy story – which made the novel worth the read.
Although set before, during, and after the Civil War, these stories are timeless. Substitute Civil War with World War II or even the Boer War and the stories remain relevant because Braver brings the action, the world-gone-mad theme down to a personal level that makes time, place, and location irrelevant. This is especially true of "Zack Hargrove," a very contemporary story of how an innocent boy grows up to become a monster. "The Idiot Brother" is a poignant portrayal of a family trapped by events beyond their control. It explores familial angst through the loss of one son to war and another to what we know today as Down's Syndrome. I liked seven of the thirteen stories, the writing varied from excellent to bland and I felt that the lets-play-fast-and -loose with the chronology was unnecessary. I give this novel 2 ½ stars.