by Wallace Baine
In the dark, pre-dawn hours of January 20, 2009, I found myself in Washington, D.C., almost 3,000 miles from my California home. It was a particularly cold night, maybe as cold as I’ve ever experienced in my life. But at noon on that day, Barack Obama was set to be inaugurated as president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and I felt I had to be there to witness history.
I traveled to D.C. with my brother Michael and my teenaged daughter Quinlyn. Since we were somewhat panicked by press reports that there might be a million people or more on the Washington Mall that day, we decided to get there early—insanely early. Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., we walked three abreast almost alone over the closed-to-traffic Arlington Bridge from Virginia into D.C.
The bridge crosses the Potomac River—much of which was literally frozen over that day—and comes into the city near the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. With the sky still showing no signs of daylight, we walked up the marble steps of the Memorial, stood briefly where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood to tell the world about a dream he had back in 1963 and entered the sacred chamber where Abraham Lincoln sat gazing upon the Capitol in the distance.
There were a few people wandering in and out, even at that gruesome hour. But at one point, after I had already lingered for about 20 minutes, I looked around and found that I was alone, standing at the feet of Lincoln on the very day that, for the first time ever, an African-American would become President of the United States.
I was deeply moved by the majesty of that moment and began reflecting not on what Lincoln meant to history, but what he meant to me, and how everyone who had ever stood where I was standing came to Lincoln with their own personal vision of the man.
This is where this book started for me. Standing alone in the Memorial that frigid morning, I felt a genuinely personal connection to this Illinois country lawyer. But is what I believe about Lincoln strictly true to history? And does that even matter?
Among Lincoln’s many nicknames is “The Great Emancipator.” Historians will tell you that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863 only as a war tactic to undermine the Confederacy, that he never believed in the abolition of slavery as a ideal, and that his order only applied to slaves in states not even under federal control, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in bondage. In strictly historical terms, the Proclamation was a narrowly defined, unenforceable bureaucratic document.
But that historical truth has done nothing to stop the broadly held idea that Lincoln freed the slaves, won the war and finally redeemed the American credo that “All men are created equal.” If “the devil is in the details,” then God must be in the long view.
Historical figures—the few at the top of the pyramid of eternal fame, anyway—occupy a unique niche in our imaginations. They are something more than mere celebrities. Yet they aren’t quite mythological gods, either.
Caesar, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, Washington, Gandhi, JFK were all, of course, real people. We are bound by honor and history to respect the documented facts of their short human life spans and the times in which they lived.
Yet they are also symbols that carry larger meanings of the human story, deeply resonant illustrations of good and evil, struggle and triumph, talent and vision, martyrdom and madness.
Accordingly, the greatest figures from the past fit uncomfortably in the realm of both history and myth. They belong in a narrow sense to the historians and descendants who are steeped in the facts of their lives. But they also belong to the rest of us in a more expansive sense, as icons onto which we can project our own dreams and passions.
In this collection of stories, we open up history to the possibilities of fiction—fantastical, comical, speculative fiction. What if all the noble ideals enshrined in the American Revolution came from one especially precocious orphaned 13-year-old girl living in a Philadelphia brothel? What if there were a secret, off-the-books Apollo moon mission launched to pacify a paranoid president? What if someone found the journal of a rebellious contrarian seaman who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his historic voyage to the “New World” and saw plainly what Columbus was too vain or arrogant to see?
Of course, these offbeat stories would not work if they were not grounded in historical fact. In “The Last Temptation of Lincoln,” President Lincoln is visited by the ghost of Ann Rutledge, the long-dead love of his life, an event that we can be confident in declaring did not actually happen. But the romance between a young Abe Lincoln and the doomed Miss Rutledge was very real and there is strong evidence to suggest that Lincoln would have married her if she had lived. It’s also true that spiritualism—visitations from ghosts—was a real 19th century phenomenon across America and that Mary Todd Lincoln actually conducted a séance in the White House.
In the middle of 1863, when our story takes place, Lincoln was under the kind of intense pressures that few leaders in the history of the world had ever faced – a war very much in doubt, a country coming apart, the world’s first experiment in self-government on the verge of failure, his party abandoning him, his family in crisis and his own heart broken by the unexpected death of his 11-year-old son Willie the year before. If anyone was ripe for a ghostly visitation it was Lincoln at that moment.
Some of these “TwiStories,” as we call them, don’t feature a historical figure at all. “The Bewildering Blasphemies of Thomas McAvee” attempts to get a perspective on how far we’ve come technologically by plopping a Colonial-era tobacco farmer in the modern day, then rubber-banding him back to his own time to try to explain to his contemporaries the world of today.
That’s the TwiStory blueprint: Historically accurate contexts with one giant, wildly inaccurate conceit at its center, whether it’s the supernatural, time travel or just absurd speculation.
These stories aren’t a challenge to history. They are, instead, an invitation to those who have always thought of history as a narcotic slog of dates and battles to refresh their view of the past and realize that it is as full of drama and passion as the present. It’s an attempt to reflect on these icons of the past and give them fictional narratives that get closer to what they mean for us as symbols.
Historians may very well resist the idea of history’s greatest figures and events being used as props for fictional fable. After all, the facts are hard enough to pass along through the generations without made-up stuff getting in the way. The old story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree in his youth and then copping to it because “I cannot tell a lie” was itself a lie, or at least an exaggeration. It was an invention of a writer named Parson Weems as an anecdote to illustrate Washington’s integrity, and has been cited for generations as a cautionary tale of how propaganda and fable can contaminate history.
The difference with “TwiStories” is that we aren’t trying to fool anyone. Ideally, these stories are entertainment for those who already have a firm handle on their history, or as a gateway to explore the real story behind the TwiStory. Acknowledging that it’s important to keep factual history and imagination in separate jars, what’s the harm in mixing the two together occasionally to make a third thing? Aren’t Lincoln, Columbus and Ben Franklin big enough to handle a little playful mythologizing?
What people are saying about these stories
Wallace Baine is history’s mischievous magician. In his short story, “The Last Temptation of Lincoln,” he lures us in with the tale of a beloved American hero, deflects us with smart prose and then reveals a plot twist so deft, it manages to touch your heart and funny bone at the same time. I’ll never read history the same way again.
—Peggy Townsend, author of “Safe Landings”
Haunted and haunting, “The Last Temptation of Lincoln” is a tale rich in historic detail, and richer still in its illumination of Lincoln’s heart. On top of everything else he does well, Wallace Baine is a master story-teller.
—Elizabeth McKenzie, novelist
What a wonderfully wickedly delicious way to think about history! Baine entices with fact, entertains with fiction, and causes us to ask: what if?
—Kathryn Kavicky, Parachute Communications
Wallace Baine is a wonderful writer who specializes in smart and entertaining satire. He has a dry and understated wit and is not afraid to use it, whether he’s describing the contemporary adventures of an invisible woman or telling you the untold story of an ambitious female 19th century ghost who changed the course of history. His writing will keep you off guard and have you in stitches.
—Dan White, author of “The Cactus Eaters”
“The Last Temptation of Lincoln” is a magnificent piece of literature that yanks on the heart strings as it transports the reader into another time and place — bringing them close to tears, yet ending with an iron resolve. This is one of the best stories I’ve ever read, and it left me begging for more.
—Melissa Lewelling, co-author of “A Goo Idea!”
Recent author signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz
The Last Temptation of LincolnPresident Abraham Lincoln, tormented by the horrors of the Civil War and the snake pit of Washington, is visited by the ghost of Ann Rutledge, his long-dead true love, who renews his faith but severely complicates his already impossible life.
Apollo 11½Two weeks after the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, three misfit (and expendable) astronauts are dispatched on a top-secret, last-minute mission to the moon to retrieve a lost set of car keys and to fix an inconvenient error on the orders of a paranoid president.
Oscar Wilde is DyingDisgraced and forgotten, the great Irish-born playwright Oscar Wilde lies on his deathbed determined only to come up with a witty aphorism that can serve as his last words, a task that turns out to be a lot more complicated than he thought it would be.
The Bewildering Blasphemies of Thomas McAveeA colonial tobacco merchant from 1738 is mysteriously dropped into 2012 for two weeks and, just as mysteriously, sent back to his own time where he tries to explain to a skeptical scholar what the future of the American colonies holds in store.
Press After Life After DeathThe first person ever to come back from the dead—Mrs. Janet Coggins of Ponca City, Okla.—holds a press conference to tell the world what she’s learned about death, God and the Afterlife.
The Voyage of the RodrigosA newly discovered diary from the famous 1492 voyage to the Orient by Christopher Columbus reveals that one skeptical, rebellious, contrarian seaman on board the Santa Maria had figured out everything that the great Columbus got wrong.
The Founding DaughterJust as the Colonies decide to throw off the yoke of King George, Benjamin Franklin discovers a remarkable teenage girl named Polly living in a Philadelphia brothel, reading books on French Enlightment philosophy while the rest of the girls are servicing the men of the Continental Congress, who becomes the intellectual inspiration and ghost writer for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.Constitution.
The Eternal Torments of Millard FillmoreThe most exclusive party in the Afterlife is open only to those who once served as President of the United States, and everyone has a blast, except the guy who’s the butt of every joke.
Boredom EverlastingLife is precious, unless you’re the world’s longest living human and the first successful patient for Perpetual Life Extension Therapy. Then you come to the appalling conclusion that there is one fate worse than death.
Myth-making at its most mischievous
Award winning writer Wallace Baine plays fantasy historian with nine wildly entertaining “TwiStories.” Each story is historically accurate to their respective eras … except for the time travel, supernatural visitations and comic absurdities.