Dreams. Robert E. Lee. Abraham Lincoln. Duty. Unknown Soldiers. Horses. The Civil War.
Lincoln’s Dreams, winner of the 1988 John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is one of Connie Willis’s earliest novels. While usually classified as a fantasy, it seems more like a mixture of fiction and historical fiction to me. Having read Willis’s later novels, one of my biggest challenges was to try to read the novel from a fresh perspective. I saw some plot parallels to Passage. But I was disappointed that I did not feel as sympathetic toward the main characters as I did in Willis’s later books. I understand that part of this is the nature of this particular plot. On the other hand, the novel did a good job of making me feel the horrors of the Civil War.
Briefly, Jeff is the research assistant for Broun, a Civil War novelist. At one of Broun’s parties, Jeff meets a troubled young woman, Annie. She is the patient and girlfriend of Jeff’s college roommate Richard, a psychiatrist. She has been having disturbing dreams related to the Civil War—particularly related to Robert E. Lee—and immediately bonds with Jeff. Being a researcher, he can verify that some of the details in the dreams concern facts that very few people know about. (This reminds me of Passages and the detailed visions about the Titanic.) When Annie discovers that Richard has been slipping her Thorazine, she goes to Jeff for help. He takes her away for a few days—unfortunately near Civil War battlefields—in order to keep her away from Richard and possibly help her with the dreams. But the dreams become more and more intense, and Jeff doesn’t know whether he is helping Annie or making her worse. Intertwined with the main plot is the idea of Lincoln’s Dreams, possibly the topic of Broun’s next book. Broun is researching dreams in California, while Jeff is searching for information about acromegaly, possibly the cause of Lincoln’s troubling dreams.
If I had read Lincoln’s Dreams before any other Connie Willis books, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I had problems getting into the story and relating to the main characters. While Jeff and Broun have some tender, father-son moments, for the most part I was disappointed with the depth of the characters. In September I am planning to read some more short novels by Willis. I will be interested to see whether I have the same reaction.