Lincoln in the Bardo
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Saunders is primarily known for short stories and non-fiction essays, several of which have won awards. This is his first novel, and the first of anything I've read by him. I received a free e-book of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It is among the best I've read in a while, but unlike almost anything else I've reviewed. It's not a typical fantasy, more a philosophical rumination on the meaning of life, and in that sense it's reminiscent of the film The Tree of Life. Whatever it is, I highly recommend it.
Bardo is a concept from Tibetan mythology, that place or state of being that lies between death and whatever comes after that, similar to the Western concept of Limbo. Even though Abraham Lincoln is a featured character, the title actually refers to his son Willie, who died at age eleven from typhoid fever, on February 20, 1862. The story is told in various forms, including newspaper reports of the time, later interviews or book publications, as well as in the musings of other souls stranded in Oak Hill Cemetery. I suspect Saunders did extensive research and that some of the historical quotes are accurate, although he may have fabricated others, as only a few of the names came up in a google search. The only one with which I was familiar was Carl Sandburg, from his The War Years. Willie was temporarily interred in Oak Hill, in the crypt of William Carroll, until after his father's death, when both bodies were transported for permanent burial in Springfield, Illinois. I'm sure all of the other souls that interact with Willie are fictitious, since the most prominent to the story did not yield results on the "Find a Grave" section of their website.
Other than the historical references to the days during the boy's illness and after his death, the events in the novel encompass just one night, the night immediately following the funeral. The President was known to have visited the crypt on numerous occasions, but I'm not sure if that was the case that first night. The ghosts there are oblivious to their condition, in fact most view their situation as just being a temporary sickness, and are awaiting recovery to return to their families. Their graves are referred to as their "sick beds" and their coffins "sick boxes." Only one, the Reverend Everly Thomas, seems to know the truth, but he does not share that information, nor does he wish to acknowledge the truth to himself because he is sure his inevitable destiny is not favorable. Their memories extend only to their death, and they continually recount events of their lives up to that point, but apparently are unable to grasp the conclusion. There are a wide range of characters from many walks of life, businessmen, bankers, prosperous land owners, what would be considered pillars of the community. Adjacent to Oak Hill is a pauper's cemetery, home to graves of the indigent and a few Black slaves. The prominent citizen ghosts are contained within the wrought iron fences, while the poor are able to go through them and mingle in the larger cemetery. I'm thinking this reflected the respect for law and boundaries by the prosperous ones, while the poor were used to being invisible to society and immune to those boundaries.
On second thought, maybe the President is the one referred to in the title, and the Bardo for him stretched from the death of his son to his own death. He bemoans the personal suffering, while at the same time reflecting on the suffering the entire country is going through. It can be speculated that Willie's death either hardened him to the suffering, enabling him to pursue the war effort more forcefully, or that Willie's death demoralized him so much he lost his capacity for caring about others. It would also be easy to conclude that Saunders injected political antagonisms into the story, and not just historical ones. If he did fabricate some of the quotes, it might be a reflection of the current trend of journalists editorializing and spinning a story rather than just reporting facts. The Lincolns did host a state dinner during the height of Willie's illness, some reports criticizing them for it, others praising their stoicism while accepting their political responsibilities. Descriptions of the event vary in both the deportment of the First Couple, as well as the weather during the event. The moon was either full and bluish-green, or yellow, or at half phase, or it was a cloudy, moonless night. Some reports describe the President as a doting father, while others claim he ignored his children because of his feverish clamor for power. Whatever the writer needed to paint the picture he wished to depict. Several times I was wondering which of those might be "fake news."
No matter your personal beliefs, no matter your opinion of Lincoln, if you can appreciate the unconventional narrative technique I think you'll enjoy this book as much as I did. Its strengths are not in any validation of belief, but rather that most beliefs reflect what people think the mortal life should mean instead of what comes after. Willie is able to convince the others of reality, that it is more important for them to be honest with themselves about their life, to accept the good with the bad, accept their death, learn from it and move on. On a couple of occasions, the soul of Willie was able to mingle with his father's body and try to communicate with him. Another time, a multitude of the other souls did it at the same time. The last one to do so, staying with the President as he road his horse away from the cemetery and back to the White House, was one of the slaves. Did anything any of them say or do have an effect on what the President did later? If so, which one, or was it a combination of all of them? I'm going to be thinking about that for a long time.
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