Lincoln in The Bardo
In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other—for no one but Saunders could conceive it.
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
This book can be an intimidating conquest to those unfamiliar with Lincoln’s life or history. It definitely is not for everyone. You need to have an interest in the subject and be able to handle the in parts dry (not boring! ...to me) approach of the book. I too had a certain respect before starting this book, although I enjoy history and had read about Lincoln’s life in other literature.
The plot in this work centers around the time Lincoln’s son Will was sick with fevers and ailments of the Typhoid fever; till after his death and the grief experienced by Lincoln and Mary Todd. Will was 11 years old at the time of his death and their third son.
Amidst the Civil War and the realization of it not being over for a long time, this was a daunting tragedy to deal with. Both Abraham and Mary grieved immensely and tried to cope in different ways. It actually put their lives in limbo or “Bardo”. The transitional stage from reality and your next phase or stage.
"My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die!"
Mary fell into weeks of not being able to get up and out of bed over the loss of her son, and Abraham sits for hours by his son’s crypt pondering life and talking to his boy.
“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Only I did not think it would be so soon. Or that he would precede us. Two passing temporariness’s developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay. I am not stable and Mary not stable and the very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable. All alter, are altering, in every instant. (Are you comforted?) No.
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be?”
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
The telling of this time period happens in many voices and news articles that exist. It affords the reader to get a picture from all angles of the situation. The way outsiders viewed what was happening as well as closest confidants to Abe and Mary. There are many voices and facts involved that wove into the fabric of this novel. This can be intimidating, as it isn’t your normal approach to reading a book. It borderlines or combines non-fiction parts with fiction. Without a direct storyline, the reader is fed information to process and think about. This forms a picture in your mind of an intricate web that is bound together and around the event.
I had the audio version and the book at hand. I was actually listening to another book that did not work for me and midway I just switched to this one. Abe’s delight and love that developed with Mary at the beginning had me instantly. I knew then, why this book was so hyped. I had a feeling I was in for a great treat.
But the happy sweet moments did not last very long. The story turned to the actual focal point soon after and that stayed constant for the rest of the book.
I had actually not read the blurb about this book. I only knew it was popular last year and I knew nothing other about it. This may explain why I was instantly hooked at the sweet beginning. But I do not regret it turning sorrowful. It was insightful and the approach was unique. The audio version put on an amazing production cast from George Saunders to Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon and many more.
I will only recommend this book to those interested in this time period of history. It is an intriguing, immersing read for the senses of your mind and you’ll feel just a bit closer to or more familiar with the Lincolns. I personally love that part :)