“Lincoln in the Bardo” Opens Emotional Window to Beleaguered President

By RJ Heller


Graveyard spirits, a little boy, a divided country, a president and history floating in mid air on a single night; sound a bit different? It is, and it is wonderful.

If you are looking for a brilliantly crafted yet different sort of fiction then you must read George Saunders’ new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. For readers not familiar with Saunders, his masterful approach to the short story has been heralded as pure genius. His recent award-winning collection of stories Tenth of December garnered praise and numerous awards.

And he does not disappoint with this, his very first novel. Having written six previous works of fiction, the excitement surrounding its publication sent anticipatory shock waves through the publishing world and especially his loyal fans. But the number one question is: what would his approach be? Well, the approach taken in a couple of words is strangely unique.

It is February 1861, and Lincoln’s eleven- year-old son Willie who has died of typhoid, has been interred in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington. With the weight of both a war that many believe will last a long time and a presidency in its infancy already laden with doubt, Lincoln struggles with his grief. Based on reports from newspapers at the time, in his attempt to deal with this tragedy, Lincoln would visit the grave of his son late at night. He would sit and sometimes hold the body and make conversation. Grief runs deep, even for a president. 

It is here in the graveyard where the entire story takes place, introducing a wonderful assortment of characters (spirits) trying to make a feeble attempt to understand their otherworldly plight. Saunders molds this place to have all walks of life come in and out of view for the reader. Each in their own way, in their own words, give shape to both time and place. The language used is otherworldly as well, such as “sick-box, not a coffin and in the case of Willie’s final resting place is a “white stone home”. The structure of this novel is also very different as it reads more like a play than it does a novel, but it works. 

Narrated by two spirits, Hans Vollman and Richard Bevins III, each having met their own unusual deaths, they move the reader with their own observations on a maze of spirits. Early on in the story it is apparent both of them are not really sure they are dead. Now, with the arrival of Willie, they are keenly aware that this place is not meant for children. So the task at hand for Vollman and Bevins is to somehow get Willie out of there. But the challenge is formidable as Lincoln’s visit creates an obstacle of love, which renders both him and his son in bardo

Bardo is a Tibetan term for a transitional state of being, a sort of limbo where spirits bide their time until they are ready to continue their journey. Throughout this masterful story of fiction are snippets of facts which are interwoven by way of historical eyewitness accounts of both the Lincoln family and a presidency. These snippets of life are at the very foundation of the emotional grip this novel has on the reader.

The spirits that come and go share their own unique stories, questions and revelations that echo Marley’s ghost “We wear the chains we forged in life”: a confused young soldier killed in battle, an abused wife seeking revenge, a black slave befriending a woman brutalized by others and unable to speak for herself, the wealthy, the indigent, the abuser. They all are here, humanity in its lightest and darkest moments.

But it is Willie who helps free them from a confinement of questions and doubt and at the same time relinquishes his own grip on life and on a father desperate to hold his son just one more time. Saunders, who currently teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, says of the novel, “You always hope that a book will lead you somewhere you didn't plan to go. And in this one, it was kind of unrelenting in leading me to think about that strange conundrum we're in here. We seem to be born to love.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing and fascinating read by a talented writer not afraid to take a risk and who has crafted a very unique approach to tell a story, a story that speaks of a real man in a real time and a nation violently divided in turmoil and of the compassion that can be found in both life and death.