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Cover illustration
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek:  A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)

by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by John Hendrix

Truth-tellers are dragged beyond their comfort zone when confronted with many of the benign fictions that run deep in our culture. Should Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy be extended a short-term or open-ended lease in childhood imagination or be simply run out of town with a rousing “Not in My Back Yard”?  And what should be done about those old-fashioned character-building tales, à la George Washington and his cherry tree? Should they be celebrated as quaint bits of Americana, told but sternly debunked, or quietly buried in embarrassed testimony to national gullibility? In an educational environment in which one channels “Parson” Weems at one’s peril, just how do you handle a legend?  Deborah Hopkinson has found a way, and it’s a winner.

Here’s the unfiltered, unembellished, bare-bones version of the legend.  When Abraham Lincoln was a young boy, he fell off a log while crossing a creek, and another boy plucked him out of the water. By the time Hopkinson is done with the account, it’s a full-blown adventure, fraught with derring-do, loyal friendship, raging rapids, a nation’s future saved by a hair, and even a moral. Or two. But isn’t that (gasp!) brazen embroidery? Doesn’t it involve (horrors!) imagined dialogue?  Aren’t the details (oh, woe!) unverifiable? Sure. The fun and illumination come in when Hopkinson and Hendrix let readers in on the entire tale-making process, demonstrating how the tellers’ craft turns observation and rumor into story.  Hopkinson first invites readers into sensory participation: “Don’t you feel like sticking your toes into that rushing water? That’s Knob Creek.” Next she introduces her two protagonists, Abraham Lincoln (“He’ll grow up to become our sixteenth president”) and Austin Gollaher (“Now I can just hear you grumblin’, ‘Who? That feller isn’t in my history book’”). Then it’s on with the story. The two boys head for the creek, warned by Abe’s mom that the water’s high. Abe dares Austin to cross on a log. He does, against his better judgment. (“Let’s all clap together: Austin made it!”). Abe follows, slips . . . . Hopkinson brings the action to a screeching halt and, remarking on the unlikelihood that the boys would be walking across a precarious and slippery log, replays the scene with them crawling. She strings out the mock tension for all it’s worth but admits all along that none of it may have gone down quite like she describes: “For that’s the thing about history—if you weren’t there, you can’t know for sure.”

Hendrix ably matches Hopkinson hyperbole for hyperbole, prevarication for prevarication. His hand and paintbrush make several appearances along the unfinished edges of the lush green and blue Kentucky watercolor landscapes, reminding readers that the artist’s as well as the author’s vision is purposefully shaping the story as it unfolds. When Hopkinson decides to restage the log crossing, Hendrix obligingly supplies a huge signboard that blocks a double-page spread with the banner “HOLD ON ONE MINUTE!” When Hopkinson can’t settle on the exact method Austin used to save his buddy, she turns things over to Hendrix’s hand and No. 2 pencil, which sketch several possible retrievals via, variously, shirttail, sycamore branch, and fishing pole. At one breath-bating moment, Hendrix actually jeopardizes the rescue by rendering a creek so tumultuous that it stifles the drowning boy’s cries and impels Hopkinson to demand, “John, could you please stop painting that noisy water?” And when Hendrix, ever the straight man setting up the joke, attempts to paint the homespun Gollaher in among the august president’s think tank, Hopkinson is johnny-on-the-spot with a redirect: “Put him back by Knob Creek where he belongs.” Truth—or at least some reasonable version of it—prevails. 

A short opening note cites the sources for the story, as told by Gollaher long after the event, and there isn’t much else to go on. Hopkinson knows that kids will ache to connect a daring rescue with a lifelong friendship and a heroic statesman, but it just can’t be done, “for the truth is, Abe and Austin never do meet again.” All that history will allow is acknowledgment that the boys, grown into men, will think and speak of each other again with fondness. Ah, well, if you can’t have an epic ending, can you at least have a moral? Hopkinson proposes a couple of possibilities: “Listen to your mother and don’t go near any swollen creeks.” Or if that won’t do (“A mite weak, perhaps? Like Abe, a bit thin?”), try “What we do matters, even if we don’t end up in history books.” If you ask a listener, particularly one who’s embellished a tale or two him- or herself, you’ll probably be advised to
quit looking for a message. Two kids in a scrape makes a great story, and so what if one becomes a president? (See p. 77 for publication information.)

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

abe lincoln crosses small

Illustration by John Dendrix from Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek:  A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) ©2008. Used by permission of Schwartz & Wade.

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2008.