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Local authors document history for readers of all ages

By: Jessica Meszaros

Some lessons are not taught in textbooks.

Career educator Jan Jacobi, a New York native turned St. Louis resident in 1982, knows this better than most. Jacobi currently teaches at the St. Michael School of Clayton and previously served as Head of Lower School at St. Louis Country Day School and Head of Middle School at MICDS.

Cover of “Young Lincoln” by Jan Jacobi

Recently, Jacobi released “Young Lincoln,” a biography of Abraham Lincoln geared toward young-adult and middle school readers.

Jacobi has researched and written about Lincoln for over 30 years, publishing multiple op-ed pieces on the former president. However, it was on a seventh-grade field trip with students to New Salem, Illinois, that the idea to write the book was born.

“Our students became very intrigued with Lincoln on the trip,” Jacobi said. “They asked me, the teacher, whether there was a book they could read. These are seventh- and eighth-graders, and there are quite a few juvenile stories about Lincoln and then, there are, of course, adult biographies, but there was nothing in-between.”

Writing a book that would capture the imaginations and educate those “in-between” readers became Jacobi’s goal. The book took about seven years to write and went through three iterations. Jacobi wrote the book from the first-person perspective of an adolescent Lincoln.

Jacobi said the book weaves “the reliable Lincoln stories … into a story that students in middle and high school would like because we all need to know about Abraham Lincoln.” It traces the future president’s life from childhood to early adulthood while detailing the struggles of coping with life on the frontier. Jacobi also discusses some of the more harrowing parts of Lincoln’s life, such the loss of his sister in childbirth and his temporary abandonment by his father. According to Jacobi, the book strives to contextualize those traumatic events for an adolescent audience.

“There’s almost an epidemic of our students having anxiety and depression,” Jacobi said. “It’s very prevalent, and there’s a lot of pressure coming at them from expectations from their parents and schools, but the world they live in is so hectic. I think one of the ways this book can speak to them is to let them know that adolescence is a time where you can feel sad and alone.”

Lincoln wasn’t the only one experiencing turbulence in the early to mid-1800s.

In “Fire, Pestilence and Death: St. Louis 1849,” Ballwin native Christopher Alan Gordon details one of the most trying years in St. Louis history, marked forever by a massive cholera outbreak and the Great Fire that destroyed about 430 buildings.

Cover of “Fire, Pestilence and Death: St. Louis 1849” by Christopher Alan Gordon

Gordon is director of library and collections for the Missouri Historical Society and the book is published by the Missouri Historical Press.

“Other historians have written bits and pieces about 1849,” Gordon said. “They’ve examined the cholera epidemic or examined the Great Fire, but some were written from a higher narrative. This is a story that needed to be written – a boots-on-the-ground narrative that gives a sense of the excitement and outright despair that went on in the city. People were surviving but coming out stronger.”

According to Gordon, the book serves to provide a glimpse into the city’s tumultuous times while simultaneously highlighting local figures who lived through the trauma and survived despite the crisis.

Two of those figures –Elizabeth Keckley and Edward Bates – came to know Abe Lincoln personally later in life.

Keckley gained her freedom in St. Louis and wrote the autobiography “Thirty Years a Slave, and Four in the White House,” referring to the time she served as dressmaker and maid to Mary Todd Lincoln.

Bates became the first attorney general of Missouri after it was admitted to the union and served as the United States Attorney General during Lincoln’s presidency.

In addition to introducing readers to historical figures, the book also chronicles how the city struggled to keep up its westward expansion at the time while experiencing an influx of European immigrants.

“This is a year that would shape the city for decades to come,” Gordon said. “When I think of St. Louis County, places like Webster and Kirkwood, they were settled when people were trying to get out of the city in the summertime. That’s a direct result of that cholera epidemic. This progression of county population growth really began with that event.

“I want people to understand that this is a story of survival and a story of overcoming major challenges. These individuals had an amazing amount of courage, but they were everyday people faced with disaster and challenges. They became stronger by living through it. I think it’s not only a testament to the people of this city, but to the people of this country.”

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