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'Mary': History as tragedy

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Mary, Janis Cooke Newman's debut novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, is one of those rare books that turns the reader into an admiring fan of both the author and her subject. You feel a compulsion to urge others to read it.

Newman seizes the most despised of first ladies and makes you understand why our wisest of presidents loved her deeply and how historians have wronged her. Mary Todd Lincoln can be seen as the Richard III of American history.

The novel is written in the first person. Newman gives Mary a riveting voice that conveys her passionate nature, her intelligence, her willfulness, and her difficulty in taming her character to suit the rigid constraints of 19th-century America with its expectations about appropriate female behavior. Just as corsets deformed women's bodies, so were their minds misshapen by the demand that they confine all thought to domestic issues.

Mary opens with the widowed 56-year-old former first lady imprisoned in a private mental asylum after her only surviving son, Robert, had her declared insane in a trial.

Trapped, she decides to secretly recount her life. The book then flashes back to the 6-year-old Mary in Lexington, Ky.

She is watching her mother die after delivering her seventh child in 12 years.

The scene is terrible: the blood-stiffened linens, the coppery smell, the child's incomprehension, the corpse, the overwhelming grief.

Mary flips between the asylum and the past: her troubled childhood, her slave-owning relatives, her marriage to Lincoln, her four sons, politics, fame, the Civil War, the assassination, widowhood, her involvement with spiritualism.

Newman does a good job in conveying the bond between the melancholy Abraham and the intense Mary.

Though complicated people, both were wounded souls. But Mary is the novel's star.

The most memorable material comes from Mary's time inside the asylum.

Once the queen of the White House, Mary is now powerless without her husband. She is utterly at the mercy of her male doctor and her avaricious, conventional son, who struggles with being the offspring of the Union's savior.

Newman does not veer away from the bizarre behaviors that Mary displayed, particularly her compulsive shopping and paranoia. But we understand the roots of her anguish at burying three of her four sons, the trauma of the assassination, her fear of poverty.

The novel presents a terrifying yet fascinating look at how affluent mentally ill women were treated. Or mistreated.

They were force-fed with pumps and dosed into submission with chloral hydrate.

Believe me, after reading Mary, you'll view stout little Mrs. Lincoln -- and her 19th-century sisters -- in a new, more respectful light.

Mary: A Novel

By Janis Cooke Newman

MacAdam/Cage, 707 pp., $26

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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