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Saturday, April 28, 2007

cover of Lincoln's Dreams

A beautiful, mesmerizing, and deeply sad book. This is my second reading, and I was astounded at how moving it was (even more than on my first reading, somehow, because I knew where it was heading), and how deeply interconnected all the themes and stories and characters are. The book is told from the perspective of Jeff Johnston,a historian who does research for a Civil War novelist, Broun. Through his old college roommate Richard, now a psychologist working at a sleep institute, Jeff meets Annie, a young woman dreaming things about the Civil War with incredible detail that she couldn't possibly know-- Lee's cat, Tom Tita, that was left at Arlington; Lee's bandaged hands; Hill's horse's legs getting shot out from under him... As they delve more into her dreams, they quickly discover that Annie is dreaming Robert E. Lee's dreams, but it takes them longer to find out the meaning and the reason for her dreams.

Jeff is immediately taken with Annie, and wants to do anything he can to help her, so he takes her with him to Fredericksburg to get her away from Richard (who has been giving her drugs without her knowledge, and has taken advantage of her, in Jeff's opinion). While there, he's doing some research for Broun's new book-- on Lincoln and his dreams before his death-- and also working on the galleys for Broun's recently completed book, The Duty Bound. There are all kinds of parallels with the characters in the book, their sense of duty, and the crazy, illogical things people do in war-time, and the present-day characters. Annie believes she is helping Lee by sharing his grief and his guilt through the dreams, and there is all kinds of language about battles and retreats, Annie's insistence on not deserting Lee (the beloved commander), and former friends (Richard & Jeff) now being on enemy sides.

The representation of Annie's dreams is masterful and makes them so believable as dreams-- they are made up of people and places that are familiar to her, yet she somehow knows they are something else at the same time. Her childhood home stands in for Lee's home at Arlington, the red-headed waitress shows up as Katie, Annie Lee's beloved friend. Richard, who had betrayed her, shows up as Longstreet, the commander who failed Lee and turned Pickett's charge into a disaster. This seems so believable to me because it seems like the way dreams work, the way we experience them-- places and people melt seemlessly into other places and people, things are familiar and strange all at once...

Eventually, Jeff figures out that the dreams are a symptom of Annie being sick, and her weak heart. Jeff later decides that the dreams were some kind of message (and there are many instances of lost messages, unreadable notes, and the like in the dreams-- which reminds me some of Willis' book Passage), to warn Annie, to save her. Annie's dreams connect back to Lincoln and the research Jeff was doing for Broun, because Broun comes to believe that Lincoln's prophetic dream of his own death was caused by his acromegaly. But because Jeff had promised not to try to stop the dreams (as Richard had done), he lets her go. At the end, Jeff reveals his understanding of what part he played in all of this (although, on the second reading, I saw a lot more hints of this revelation), and for some reason it is heart-breaking (because it so perfectly emblematic of his love for Annie, his inability to save her from death and grief); he was Annie's Traveller: the beloved, intelligent steed who was perfectly suited to Lee, who served faithfully throughout the war-- and who died of lockjaw only two years after Lee died.

Title:Lincoln's Dreams
Author:Connie Willis
Date published:1987
Genre:Science Fiction ?
Number of pages:228
Notes:Second reading; read in a single Saturday.


Canada said...

Lincoln's Dreams was the first book I read by Connie Willis, and the best by far. It is the story of a young Civil War historian who is pulled into the dream world of a disturbed young woman. The tragic story of the Civil War is deftly entertwined with the tragic story of that young woman

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