It is a special mind that can take a sliver of historical fact and spin out an imaginative and totally unexpected tale of love and loss as intriguing and captivating as George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth. They are the primary narrators of Lincoln’s visit, which in Saunders’ telling occurs all in one night. In the first half of the book, the supernatural narration goes on a bit too much, and some of it is superfluous to the story. However, Lincoln’s grief, as seen by the spirits (especially those who inhabit him on occasion), is very real and brings the loss of his son…and all the other sons and daughters being killed as a result of the Civil War…into perspective. Both President Lincoln and Willie, as well as the spirits, grapple with questions of love lost and how to move past that pain.
One of the things that makes this novel work are the intriguing characters. An elderly cleric plays a primary role as an observer — and explainer — of what is happening in the Bardo and why it matters to the souls of all involved. The New York Times reviewer noted:
“…(the voices of the supernatural) gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.
The ghosts are a motley lot, reminiscent of the dispossessed and disenfranchised characters in Saunders’s short stories. They include a soldier, a murderer, a disgraced clerk, a rape victim, a hunter who’s killed more than 30 bears and hundreds of deer, an aggrieved scholar, a mother of three girls, a young man who tried to kill himself after the man he loved spurned his affections, and an older man who was struck in the head by a falling ceiling beam and died before he could consummate his marriage to his pretty young wife. Together, these voices create a kind of portrait of an American community — not unlike the one in Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 classic, “Spoon River Anthology,” which was set in a fictionalized version of a small Illinois town.”
The perspectives of these spirits and of President Lincoln shine through in Saunders’ hands. This is an introspective work that I found well worth the reading. Recommended.
More to come…