2017-11-02 / Opinions

Book Review

Lincoln in the Bardo
Reviewed by

Fiction is, of course, a madeup story. But Abraham Lincoln was a real person, and his son Willie really did die when he was only eleven years old. George Sanders has taken that real situation and woven a heart-breaking, thought-provoking novel around it.

Not exactly purgatory, rather an intermediate state between death and whatever is next, “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for this speculative territory. In Lincoln in the Bardo, there are numerous “ghosts” who report on their own lives as they worry about Willie, who is “too young,” they say, to linger where they are. Unfortunately, for everyone’s peace of mind, Willie’s father is reluctant to let him go, visiting the cemetery, even opening the coffin to touch him.

Willie doesn’t know where he is, just that he misses his parents terribly. Several of the ghosts try to help. In life, Hans Vollman has nobly refrained from asking his young bride for sexual relations. Just as she tells him that she is “ready” after several years of marriage, he dies. His friend in the bardo, Roger Bevins III, has slit his wrists after being rejected by a man he loves. The Reverend Everly Thomas makes up a group of three who have troubled histories but whose selfishness wavers before the plight of Lincoln and Willie.

All this makes for tragedy, but George Saunders lightens the atmosphere with touches of humor in the conversation of the ghosts. There are many more besides the three main ones who also entertain while relating often sad stories.

Meanwhile, some force is grasping at Willie’s body with fast-growing vines that harden into rock. The kind ghosts try to pull the vines away; Willie needs to leave, quickly. Willie, however, wants to be there if his father comes again. Lincoln’s visit also revivifies many in the bardo community. “Individuals we had not seen in years walked out, crawled out, stood shyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity.” All of them want to speak to Willie and swarm around his father (who cannot see or hear them) when he comes.

Saunders includes lines from letters, news articles, and memoirs which tell about Willie’s death and the progress of the Civil War, which is in its second year at this time. Lincoln is bowed down not only by the loss of his son but also by the war’s destruction and killing. Perhaps his sorrow is not unique; others are losing their sons in battle. He needs to take up the care of his people.

Vollman and Bevins are thoroughly bored, having repeated their stories to each other many, many times. They, too, are afraid to “move on,” not knowing what will be next. Trying to help Willie opens new insights for them, too. Lincoln in the Bardo is available at the Mary Willis Library.

Return to top