Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I didn’t know what a bardo was until I picked up this book. Bardo is the state of the soul between death and rebirth. The translation of this Tibetan word is “between two.” And that’s exactly the condition of the souls in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1862 when Willie Lincoln, third son of Abraham Lincoln, was interred. The death of Willie Lincoln and the night-time visits of Abraham Lincoln set off a series of events that will change the ghostly residents of Oak Ridge.
At first, I had trouble connecting with this work. The back-and-forth narrative, mostly between two ghosts, felt like talking heads. Even though their back stories were quite different, it was difficult to distinguish the characters. I actually think Lincoln in the Bardo would be wonderful as a stage play. The novel reminded me a bit of the cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. (Though I must say Our Town is a more accessible read.)
By the middle of the book, however, my interest became fully engaged. The ghost of Willie Lincoln began to assert itself more forcefully and, once that happened, the other characters reacted and changed along with it. I particularly enjoyed the ghosts’ many attempts to get Lincoln to focus on the war effort and how these efforts bring the cemetery denizens together, united for a common goal. Some of those portions are darkly comic. By the end of the novel, the cemetery scene has been altered for the better.
An interesting side story the author includes comes from historical writing including diaries and biographical snippets about the Lincoln family. There was more validation for Mary Lincoln’s troubled mental state. And there was this description of the president’s character: “Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners, without social grace.” And, no, this was not about our own President Trump; this line concerns President Lincoln and originates from The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan. McClellan was General-in-Chief of the Union Army and later presidential candidate opposing Lincoln. One other interesting historical tidbit was the number of times Lincoln visited the crypt and, believe it or not, actually took Willie out of his coffin to hold.
Overall, I gained some insight into the tumultuous 19th century times. I learned more about the Lincoln family and happily indulged myself in a ghost novel perfect for the R.I.P. Challenge.