In a Q&A with managing director Angela Sontheimer, the newsletter of Steven B. Wiley’s leadership training facility shines a spotlight on Smith’s book, “Three Miles from Providence: The Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home”
Knowing that Lincoln is Smith’s favorite president, Sontheimer asks him:
- What was your inspiration to write about the Soldiers’ Home?
- Your book is not written in traditional prose form. Why did you choose the style that you did? And the nontraditional binding/presentation?
- What kind of research did you do before setting pen to paper?
- What is your favorite memory of being at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home?
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- Scroll down to read the entire interview.
- Click here to learn more about Three Miles from Providence.
Angela Sontheimer: What was your inspiration to write about the Soldiers’ Home?
David Bruce Smith: When President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home was being renovated in Washington, DC, in October 2006, my parents and I took a trip to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. After the day was over, I wondered if the staff at Lincoln’s Cottage had a book about Lincoln that would help feature and promote the Cottage when it re-opened in 2008.
So I called the executive director, Frank Milligan, and suggested the idea of “Three Miles from Providence,” a fictional account in the form of a diary about Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home. He thought it was a great suggestion. So I started doing research in November, and six intense weeks later, the manuscript was at the printer.
Angela Sontheimer: Your book is not written in traditional prose form. Why did you choose the style that you did? And the nontraditional binding/presentation?
David Bruce Smith: I knew Lincoln was the most written about person in the world, other than Jesus Christ. There are more than 20,000 books on the 16th president—if not more. So if I was going to write a book on him, I wanted to come up with something unique. That’s the reason for the diary-style approach.
Of course, I wanted it to be authentic, so I used language that fit the time period. The diary spans eight generations, so for each generation we changed the font to evoke each particular time period. For example, in the current generation, we used an email format.
Regarding the special leather binding, obviously I could have done this book as a traditional rectangular book, but I thought that was boring. I wanted something unique. So I did a little research, and found that soldiers actually carried something that look like a pouch. So we created a binding that mimicked the leather pouch with two sides that folded in, strings that wrapped around, and a US stamp on top. There was something tactile about it, which I liked because I wanted the book to be more than the words. My goal was to get a reaction to it. And when you are touching leather, you get a different feeling.
Angela Sontheimer: What kind of research did you do before setting pen to paper?
David Bruce Smith: I spent time at Lincoln’s Cottage, asking questions of Director Frank Milligan and Executive Director Erin Carlson Mast. And because there was so much information online, I didn’t know where to begin. So I asked Frank and Erin for a bibliography, which provided a great direction. I went off of that, of course, but it gave me somewhere to begin.
I went into a Zen-like mode, which is what enabled me to complete the project in six weeks. It was an altered state of consciousness, almost. And I know I couldn’t replicate it.
If I were to do a sequel, I’d take a similar approach, but from the point of view of Mary Todd. I think she’s wonderful. I feel sorry for her actually, for she is pigeonholed as a crazy woman. But look at her life and everything she contended with. I think she’s been unfairly villainized. In fact, she propelled Lincoln to the White House, and without her he wouldn’t have made it. True, she had issues. But they were exacerbated by her life. That would be an interesting book.
Angela Sontheimer: What is your favorite memory of being at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home?
David Bruce Smith: I have two of them. When I was figuring out how I was going to do this book, Erin took me on a walk through the property. I got the feeling then of a strong presence of Lincoln there. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also fascinating. And that experience has repeated itself each time I go there.
Then, after the Cottage was re-inaugurated, they gave a party that simulated a Civil War meal. Eating where Lincoln had eaten was an amazing feeling. I think it’s because there’s something about him that makes you feel close to him.
Angela Sontheimer: The story of the Burdette family ends very suddenly. Why did you choose to end their saga this way?
David Bruce Smith: That is what is happening in the present, and I was considering several endings. I was in the car one day, and I decided that the abruptness was very appropriate. It closed the loop. Lincoln was killed by an assassin in the beginning of the saga. In the end, I decided there should be another assassination. I liked the parallelism.
Angela Sontheimer: Tell us more about the exciting new project you are working on, called the Grateful American™ Series and Foundation. What inspired you to launch the organization?
David Bruce Smith: My father. He always said how grateful he was to be an American, and that really stuck with me. Most of my family members are Jewish immigrants, and they knew how lucky they were to be in this country. I have always felt that way, too, and I passed that on to my children. I hope to inspire others to do the same.
Angela Sontheimer: Why do you think so many people, kids especially, don’t have a passion for American history?
David Bruce Smith: Generally, kids are not being taught history effectively. With that comes the tendency to get bored with the material and slough it off. We need to have the same feeling of patriotism that existed after 9/11, but without the framework of a disaster. I think the title, “The Grateful American™ Series,” will help stimulate some of those thoughts.
Angela Sontheimer: What are your goals for the project?
David Bruce Smith: One goal is to encourage the teaching of history in the most interesting, innovative way possible. To do that, schools need to find the most qualified people. Otherwise, kids will turn off—fast.
Angela Sontheimer: Do you think textbooks, which can be less than riveting, are part of the problem?
David Bruce Smith: Textbooks can be part of the problem, in that they cover the sweep of history unevenly or not at all. Also, sometimes they are too complicated and verbose. I think it’s good to mix standard texts with films, biographies, diaries, and guest speakers.
Angela Sontheimer: Adults don’t seem to know much more than kids when tested on their knowledge of American history. Do you think this is really a problem, and if so, why?
David Bruce Smith: Adults having little knowledge about American history? I think this shows that the problem has existed for a long time. It’s hard to fix those deficiencies, but you can make up for it by educating this generation and the upcoming one, conscientiously. A standardized test is not going to fix it, because all that means is that students cram in a lot of dates, and then quickly forget them.
Angela Sontheimer: What are some solutions to getting more kids and adults excited about knowing American history, and re-igniting our passion for the people who founded the country?
David Bruce Smith: Qualified teachers, and more visits to historical sites. School budgets are tight; I don’t know why local and national businesses don’t contribute funds to make these outings possible. It would be an investment in their future employees. I would also encourage more interactive lessons, and getting historians, authors, and key people from the presidential homes to visit schools.
Angela Sontheimer: In The Grateful American™ Series, you are interviewing the leaders of the nation’s biggest presidential homes—including Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, Lincoln’s Cottage—as well as the national museum at Gettysburg and Ben Franklin’s House in London. What are some of your favorite things about each home?
David Bruce Smith: Except for Lincoln Cottage, all of the other homes were owned by founding fathers. These were the men who made it possible for all of us to live in this wonderfully free society—in the best country in the history of the world.
Angela Sontheimer: As we said earlier, Lincoln is your favorite president—and of course ours, too, at the Lincoln Leadership Institute. Why does he fascinate you above the others?
David Bruce Smith: Ever since I was a little boy, Lincoln was my favorite for one reason: He freed the slaves. Had he not, it would have been many years before anybody else was bold and brave enough to do it. I find that fascinating, and aspire to be as courageous in the work I do—including The Grateful American™ Series. Here’s to restoring enthusiasm in American history—for kids, and adults.
Click here to learn more about the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg.
And click here to read more about David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American Foundation.