Debbie Eylon On:
The Lincoln Train by Maureen F. McHugh
“The Lincoln Train” is a story of alternate history, but its deviation from the historical narrative is very slight. In the reality of the story, which takes place sometime after April 14, 1865, Lincoln didn’t die from John Wilkes Booth’s gunshot, but rather slipped into a coma from which he did not wake up. Subsequently, Andrew Johnson never replaces him as president, and instead, Secretary of State William Henry Seward governs the United States, and orders, among other things, to banish slave owners who had not emancipated their slaves—a type of internal population transfer. The story is told from the point of view of Clara, a seventeen-year-old girl who’s driven out of her town along with her mother.
This story is a wonderful demonstration of Maureen F. McHugh’s refined approach to science fiction and fantasy writing. McHugh’s stories go beyond the realia only in a minor fashion, which grants them the quality of something between a thought experiment and an illusion. Somehow the slight deviation turns into a type of crack through which we peek at our regular reality and perceive it in a way that is simultaneously vague and heightened, as it occurs at times when we run a high fever and everything is experienced both from up-close and also slightly from a distance, sharp and piercing but also blurry and opaque. What remains the same are the people (McHugh tends to focus on the women), and their difficulties and existential dilemmas, which McHugh excels in capturing in all of her stories, and in this story in particular. One or two paragraphs into the story and we are already standing on the dock inside Clara’s skin, smelling the scents, feeling the urgency, the tension and the dread, experiencing the confusion of a girl who is merely attempting to be a good person in a time and under circumstances in which it is no longer very clear what that means. Along with Clara, we wait for the Lincoln train to take us to an unknown future.