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Presidential Fiction: Reimagining the Lives of U.S. Presidents

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 12, 2021

President Abraham Lincoln was born 212 years ago today and Monday is Presidents' Day, so we thought it would be fun to explore the appearance of US presidents in fiction. From imaginative retellings to alternate histories to intimate portrayals of behind-the-scenes relationships, here are some novels featuring former American commanders-in-chief.

Imaginative Retellings

Lincoln in the Bardo is the much-lauded and award-winning first novel from short story master George Saunders. The bulk of the story takes place over the course of a single evening and centers on the death of the Lincoln's eleven-year-old son in 1862.

In some cases the prez turns up as a relatively minor character in the story. From renowned American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird follows bumbling bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House to the penitentiary as Watergate's least known co-conspirator. President Warren Harding's death while still in office propels the plot in Carter Beats the Devil, a suspense thriller about a magician by Glen David Gold.

In The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, Jerome Charyn imagines life from the perspective of Theodore Roosevelt, the New York City police commissioner, Rough Rider, and soon-to-be twenty-sixth commander-in-chief.

Alternate Histories

Presidents Lincoln and John F. Kennedy turn up in many novels. Perhaps the fact that they were assassinated adds to the drama and nostalgia surrounding them. They are both represented in stories like these imagining what might have happened if things had gone differently.

In the entertaining Jack 1939, author Francine Mathews spins a thrilling tale of a twenty-two-year-old JFK tapped by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt to embark on a covert spy mission while traveling through Europe. 11/22/63, a bestseller by Stephen King, is one of several novels employing a time travel plotline to prevent Kennedy's assassination. This book has been adapted into a limited series.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter is a gripping thriller, imagining what might have happened if number sixteen had lived to face the tumultuous politics after the Civil War. At the novel's center is a young Black woman hired to work on Lincoln's defense. And Sethe Graham-Smith's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter series positions Honest Abe as a heroic avenger, rooting out America's blood-sucking undead.

In The Plot Against America, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth envisions a scenario in which FDR loses the 1940 presidential election to aviator (and suspected Nazi sympathizer) Charles A. Lindbergh who launches an anti-Semitic agenda. This one has also been adapted for the screen.

Eleanor vs. Ike by Robin Gerber pits the indomitable former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, against popular war hero Dwight D. ("Ike") Eisenhower in a 1952 presidential race that turns intensely negative.

The Two Georges asks the question: What if the American Revolution had never happened? Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss and Hugo Award-winning author Harry Turtledove present readers with a rollicking adventure in which George Washington makes peace with King George and America remains part of the British Empire.

First Ladies

Often hidden behind the scenes, first ladies have long inspired the curiosity of the public. Perhaps none more than the ultra-private Jackie Kennedy who famously said, "I want to live my life, not record it." In The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ruth Francisco channels the voice of the chic, elegant figure and imagines her inner world, reading between the lines of recorded history.

Bestselling mystery author Mary Higgins Clark wrote Mount Vernon Love Story (originally titled Aspire to the Heavens), a thoroughly researched biographical novel depicting the first president's marriage with Martha as one full of tenderness and passion.

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton kicks off a series of fun mysteries featuring Abigail Adams, the wife of America's second president. When her husband is accused of a terrible crime, Abby must uncover the conspiracy that threatens the entire nation. (Psst, this one may be pure fiction.)

In The Emancipator's Wife, Barbara Hambly imagines the life of Mary Todd Lincoln. After a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, the vivacious twenty four-year-old married the gangly lawyer from Illinois. Although deeply passionate, their union was beset by many tragedies.

If you're anything like us, you may be wishing you'd had some of these volumes to read instead of the dry textbooks of your history classes. Learning stuff while enjoying a juicy story always feels like a win! Anyway, it's never too late to beef up your knowledge of American history with some presidential fiction. (But you may want to follow up with some fact-checking on some of these tall tales!)

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