In Three Miles from Providence: A Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home, author David Bruce Smith follows generations of the fictional Burdette family, from President Abraham Lincoln’s time at the Soldiers’ Home in the 1860s, to the grand opening of President Lincoln’s Cottage in 2008. The storyline allows the author to illuminate the dramatic changes witnessed by Lincoln’s seasonal retreat over more than 130 years. We recently had an opportunity to interview the author about this unique project.
Erin Carlson Mast: David, what is the significance of the title, Three Miles from Providence?
David Bruce Smith: As the Civil War progressed, and pressures increased, Lincoln chose to spend more time away from the City and escape to his “retreat”-cottage. It was cooler there, and he could work and entertain with fewer interruptions. By the end, Lincoln had reverential feelings for the place, and was transformed from a non-believer to a slightly religious man.
ECM: What gave you the idea to tie events from the Lincoln era with the present through the story of a fictitious family?
DBS: I had to create the fictitious Burdettes in order to “move” the Lincoln family from the Cottage to the White House, and realistically introduce the people who worked for them. Without the Burdettes there really was no creative way to connect the future uses of the Cottage with the past.
ECM: I understand a great deal of research went into the creation of this book. What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
DBS: The most surprising discovery I uncovered was learning about Lincoln’s monumental struggle with depression. Earlier in his life, he experienced two episodes of depression, but despite the difficulties with the disease throughout his life, Lincoln emerged as one of the best–or THE best–president in American history.
ECM: Who was the audience you had in mind when creating Three Miles from Providence?
DBS: “Three Miles from Providence” is for all ages: 13-100. I hope whoever reads it will learn something new, interesting and memorable
ECM: The leather binding gives the book the feel of a treasured artifact, a personal journal turned family scrapbook. Tell us about how and why you decided on this unique format and binding.
DBS: The design is intended to be tactile, which explains the fine paper and the leather binding; the pouch motif is masculine, and it resembles the actual carrying cases that the Civil War soldiers used for their belongings.
ECM: Your mother, the artist Clarice Smith, created the illustrations for this book. Was this project the first time you collaborated and do you have future collaborations planned?
DBS: My mother and I have been collaborating for over twenty years on a variety of projects that have ranged from the first “artist’s book” for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, to a book on Tennessee Williams that was created in partnership with the Shakespeare Theatre. The latest project is a children’s book about John Marshall, commissioned by the John Marshall Foundation in Richmond.
ECM: Thank you for your time, David.
Folks interested in purchasing Three Miles from Providence may do so via the President Lincoln’s Cottage online store. For more information on the works of David Bruce Smith, please visit his website: http://www.davidbrucesmith.com/