By Martin B. Deutsch
September 26, 2013 -- The pleasures of diversified reading are exemplified by a trio of unrelated books I recently enjoyed and appreciated. Any or all would make for fine reading during a business trip this fall.

One nonfiction work addresses Abraham Lincoln's vacillating journey to become the Great Emancipator, an interesting backstory in this year of the 150th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation. The second involves a young man's journey as an antisocial naturalist and a chilling dénouement in the Alaskan wilderness. Finally, there is a fascinating early Isaac Bashevis Singer novel about the aftermath of a 17th–century massacre of Polish Jews by Ukranian Cossacks.

When I was growing up, Abraham Lincoln was a mythic figure who seemed somewhat unreal. As I learned more about our 16th president, he seemed almost too good to be true. And, of course, he was. An astute politician who always had his eye on the election, the man who would become The Great Emancipator did not start out in his political career as a dedicated opponent of slavery. Instead, he undertook a circuitous journey to his ultimate decision.

Eric Foner's 2010 work, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, details the complexity of Lincoln's struggle with slavery. It is chockablock with anecdotes, quotations from journals and newspaper articles and some highly qualified speculation. Lincoln's painstaking evolution and his struggle, both personally and professionally, to reach the decision that led to freedom for this country's millions of slaves are explored with great clarity and nuance.

Although Lincoln saw slavery as a great evil, he had no early aspirations to abolish it. Rather he was an advocate of non-extension, which meant that slavery would not be allowed in new territories or states. His theory of non-extension was grounded in the mistaken belief that slavery would gradually whither away in the Southern states if it was not allowed to flourish beyond those borders, even if the process took another century.

Further, he never became an active abolitionist. Instead, he subscribed to a theory called Colonialism, which held that any freed slaves would sooner or later be sent to a colony of their own in either Africa or Latin America. At no point in his career does Lincoln seem to believe that African-Americans are the intellectual equals of whites. The backdrop for his indecision was Lincoln's commitment, especially as his ascension to the presidency neared, to preserve the Union. Until the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, he hoped that cooler heads would prevail in the South and that secession would not come to pass.

Back in 2010, I discussed Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's 1997 nonfiction account of a 1996 climbing expedition during which many people lost their lives trying to scale Mount Everest.

Recently, I caught up with Krakauer's Into the Wild, published a year before the Everest saga. It's a sad but engrossing exploration of the short, somewhat romanticized life of Christopher McCandless. Also known as Alexander Supertramp, McCandless perished at the age of 24 in the Alaskan wild although he was only 10 or 20 miles from salvation.

Fueled by a desire to escape from his controlling parents in particular and society in general, and very much influenced by Henry David Thoreau and other naturalists, McCandless hitchhiked across the country, often living rough, and often in isolation. He ultimately sought to challenge the Alaskan wilderness. What he envisioned as his final adventure becomes his last hurrah.

Spurred by a quest for enlightenment, McCandless gradually sheds his material possessions, even burning his money, before his sojourn into a treacherous corner of Alaska. Krakauer, who seems understandably sympathetic to McCandless, tracks the fascinating journey.

Some believed McCandless was clinically depressed. Given the comments of those interviewed by Krakauer, however, this was not the impression a smiling and affable McCandless gave to those he encountered. He appears to be neither a sociopath nor a recluse. But he is misguided in his search for what he considers to be freedom. Warned about the dangers of such an undertaking by people he met on the Alaska trek, it would seem that the likeable but sometimes naive McCandless' weaknesses--stubbornness, willfulness and bravado--proved to be fatal.

Krakauer, who almost lost his life on a solo mountain climb, also relates tales of similarly motivated men who either made it through or perished in the wilderness (Factoid: Did you know that there is a wrong way to signal a rescue helicopter?). The author concludes that McCandless made only two major mistakes. It's unfair to describe both here, but one involves the deliberate failure to bring maps. This is a cautionary tale told by a master storyteller.

Earlier this year, I commented on a relatively obscure novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer that ignited my desire to read more of the Nobel Prize winner's work. In 1962, Singer published a fascinating novel called The Slave about Jewish life in Poland after the 17th-century Khmelnytsky/Chmielnicki Uprising by Cossacks from the Ukraine. About 300,000 (or more) Jews perished, quite possibly the single-greatest such tragedy until the Holocaust.

The central figure of The Slave is a devout Jew named Jacob, who has been sold into slavery after his wife and children are slaughtered in the Cossack purge. He tends cattle for a Christian farmer for the next four or five years and, to summarize events, falls in love with his owner's widowed daughter Wanda. She is very young and very pretty and falls very much in love with the handsome, enslaved stranger.

One day, Jacob is summoned to the farmer's cottage and finds three elders from his old village. They purchase his release with gold coins and take him back without giving him a chance to bid farewell to his now-beloved Wanda. Naturally, he can't make a fuss since his relationship with Wanda would be viewed as a grievous sin by both his fellow Jews and his former owner.

Once back home in his decimated Polish community, Jacob resumes his life as a scholar and fends off the good-natured intentions of his neighbors to have him marry a widow from a nearby village. And freedom brings its own problems: Jacob is distressed to learn that his Jewish neighbors have resumed practices--including thievery and adultery--that defy Jewish law. Some have even aided and abetted the marauding Cossacks.

Jacob is haunted by thoughts of Wanda--she lives in his dreams. After some time has passed, driven by his desires and some vaguely mystical signs, he finds his way back to Wanda's village. They run off in the middle of the night. Determined to find a new life in Orthodox Jewish surroundings, Jacob must confront the reality that Wanda neither speaks nor barely understands Yiddish.

When they find a likely village, he changes her name to the Biblical Sarah and, at least temporarily, resolves their dilemma by having her pose as a mute. As Wanda/Sarah begins to acclimate, Jacob schools her in Jewish law and theology. Jacob becomes an accepted member of the village, teaching school and finding acceptance. Their life is shattered when Sarah breaks her silence in order to rescue Jacob from a confrontation with the Polish lord of the region. Her ability to speak is considered a miracle at first, by both the Jews and gentiles. Sarah will not speak again until she is in labor with their son.

I've given away enough as it is, but the story still holds surprises, both mystical and more realistic. I guarantee you won't be bored. In fact, I read the book in five or six extended sittings.

FYI, I have just opened the pages of another Bashevis Singer novel, Enemies, a Love Story. I'm sure you'll hear about this 1972 work from me--eventually!

ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

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