From Our Staff | September 28, 2007
Editors' Prize Archives: "Tad Lincoln's Ladder of Dreams" (1998)
The story opens with the imagery of death–a small boy dying in bed, the sound of rain from an opened window. A mother and father experience a great loss, presented to us in effective detail. It is not until the second page that we discover the father is Abraham Lincoln. And it is not until this same page that we discover the narrator of the piece is someone who could not have witnessed the death presented so vividly in the first scene. The narrator is Thomas (Tad) Lincoln, the third son of Abraham Lincoln. The dying boy was the first son, who died before Tad was born, so this scene is his re-imagining of what happened, perhaps constructed from events he has been told, or perhaps simply what he feels must have happened. We soon learn that Tad, born with a cleft lip, is not only living in the shadow of the first son’s death, but also in the shadow of the second son, his older brother Willie, whose features-his eyes and lanky frame-are more like his father’s.
Tad’s imagination continues to be a dominant presence in the story, often exceeding what he would actually know, often revealing to us his father’s thoughts as if they were his own. He imagines what his father sees, what he fears. Lincoln is shown from the perspective of a son who is amazed that his father has attained a god-like stature to the people around him. The son imagines Lincoln’s fear of death, and his determination to do what is right in the face of this death, and his desire to go back to a normal life.
But death is never far away in the story. The numerous family tragedies that Thomas witnesses encompass a meditation on death which is both thoughtful and moving. There are many quietly powerful moments in the story. There is honesty in the prose. There is detail in the description which goes beyond the researched aspects of the story, making the reader accept the truth of the piece. There is verisimilitude, one of the more difficult tricks to pull off in a period piece.
— Darren Pine
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