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What Really Happens in Amor Towles' Novel, The Lincoln Highway?

Was there a murder?

open highway on a western plain

Hard knocks in the Post-War era

It's 1954 in rural Nebraska, and Emmett Watson is returning home after a stint at a juvenile work farm where he's served fifteen months for causing the accidental death of a bully. His father, an inept farmer, has died, leaving Emmett with very little. The farm he's grown up on is foreclosed on by the bank, and Emmett has sole responsibility for his 8-year-old brother, Billy.

What's a boy to do?

The only possession worth anything is what Emmett has earned himself. He has spent summer breaks and weekends working with a local carpenter who has trained Emmett in the basic skills of home remodeling and carpentry. Every penny Emmet made, he put aside to purchase a powder blue Studebaker, vintage 1948.

Emmett is resourceful and has carefully plotted to use his training to make a living for his brother and himself. He plans to leave Nebraska and go to a state with a growing population and a need for homes so he can use his skills to renovate houses and sell them.

Billy, is precious, convinced that he and Emmett should drive to California, following the path of nine, picture postcards sent by the mother who abandoned them years ago. All those postcards were sent from cities situated along the western portion of The Lincoln Highway , the route to California.

So the boys prepare to leave their old farm and set out on an adventure that will surely lead to better things.

Enter Duchess and Wooly

The Warden of the reform school drives Emmett out to the farm after his release. Little does the Warden know that two of the other inmates have escaped and hidden themselves in the trunk of the car, climbing out when he's talking to Emmett.

Duchess and Wooly drastically alter Emmett's plans. What was planned as a straight-shot Westward trek to California with two brothers becomes a circuitous adventure through Chicago and New York involving three miscreant teenagers and a young boy. Along the way, they encounter characters of all kinds. The four kids are exposed to the best and worst humanity has to offer. In the process, each boy must use his wits to get where he wants to go.

What really happened in The Lincoln Highway?

Memories, motivations, and murder?

As readers, we begin to understand each character through Towles' skillful divulging of details of the boys' lives. We hear their memories. We learn about their families. We know what they aspire to. We see that their behavior is caused by an event earlier in their lives. The more we know about each character's background, the more we understand why he acts as he does, and the more able we are to predict how he will react to any given situation.

Which brings us to the most important question of all.

At the end of the book, there is a death. Is that death accidental? Was it a premeditated killing, based on anticipated behavior? Is the ending of the book hopeful? Or does it hint at the power that comes from knowing you can commit the perfect murder?

Every boy needs a father...or a hero

Heroes are an important recurring theme in The Lincoln Highway. Billy sees his older brother, Emmett, as a hero. Billy is also enamored with Professor Abercrombe's Compendium of Heroes, a book that he has memorized from constant reading. The book influences Billy's view of life and his belief in people.

Fathers are another important theme of the book. Each boy is dramatically impacted and shaped by his father - or lack of one. Duchess' father was a criminal low-life. Wooly's father had died in World War II. Emmett and Billy's dad was an idealistic failure.

How the Lincoln Highway Came to Be

Amore Towles' website includes an article that describes how the Lincoln Highway was built, an important bit of history that is the foundation for the novel. It's an interesting tale on its own. The backstory goes like this:

Carl Fisher was a poor, but industrious boy born around Indianapolis in 1874. For years, he worked at the Union Station Depot in Indy doing any kind of job he could. All his time around trains got him interested in cars. He had the foresight to invest in a patent for a new type of automotive headlamp which made him a very wealthy man.

With his interest in cars and his newfound wealth, Carl Fisher established the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. Eighty thousand people came to one of his first races, the Indianapolis 500.

Carl Fisher liked cars and traveling, so he decided to vacation in Miami. Once there, he recognized its potential as a vacation spot, so he used a lot of his money to buy land, build a land bridge, and build several luxury hotels on Miami Beach.

The more Fisher traveled, the more he saw how bad America's roads were, so he crusaded to create The Lincoln Highway, the first road that would allow cars to travel from one end of the country to the other. Fisher had wealth and prestige and was a great campaigner. He solicited donations for the highway from Packard and Goodyear. He also approached celebrities and national figures for contributions. Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison both gave money.

Carl Fisher helped to build the Lincoln Highway. Before it was constructed, it took a car sixty days to travel across the country. After it was built, it only took twenty.

Once the government saw the success of The Lincoln Highway, it started putting lots of money into the development of the national interstate which pulled traffic away from The Lincoln Highway and the businesses that had grown up around it. Ironically, the success of Carl Fisher's Lincoln Highway led to its demise.

Throughout his lifetime, Carl Fisher made the equivalent of a billion dollars in today's money.

The Florida hurricane of 1926 and the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out. He died, alone and broke, in a cottage on Miami Beach in 1939.

The talent of Amor Towles

Amor Towles debuted a novel titled Rules of Civility in 2011. He followed that with the bestselling novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, 2016.

The Lincoln Highway was released in 2021.

I haven't yet read Rules of Civility, but I thoroughly enjoyed both A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway, two very different books in tone and feel. As a writer, I am awed by his talent.

Perfect Pairings

Like fine food and wine, books often gain depth and flavor when perfectly paired with a companion.

Read This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. Then read The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Both feature brother relationships and young boys who've done time in reform schools. They are both novels about traveling through America and being exposed to various adventures while searching for new lives.

Both are great stories by excellent writers.

You may be surprised how hard it is to decide which one you like best!


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Buy The Lincoln Highway from (supports independent bookstores)

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Buy This Tender Land from (supports independent bookstores)

Buy This Tender Land from Barnes and Noble (brick and mortar & online retailer)

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