New novel imagines Lincoln amid ghosts after son’s death

Lincoln at the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” (Random House), by George Saunders

Days after his son Willie’s death, Abraham Lincoln returned alone, late at night, to his 11-year-old’s crypt.

In his new novel, George Saunders takes this historical nugget, gleaned from a cemetery watchman’s logbook, and imagines a night in the company of ghosts.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an unusual book, written entirely in quotes from the colorful cast of characters, interspersed with quotes from historical sources.

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Despite the title, Lincoln and his son make only fleeting appearances. Readers instead become acquainted with this bardo — a suspended state between death and the ultimate destination of heaven/hell — through the musings of Hans Vollman (felled by a beam) and Roger Bevins III (slit his wrist). Other characters, and there are dozens of them, include a foul-mouthed couple, black people still suffering the burdens of slavery and an out-of-place clergyman struggling with how he’s ended up here.

The snippets of dialogue have a somewhat disjointing effect; reading the novel feels like laboring over a 1,000-piece puzzle. Yet, there are poignant passages that resonate. From Thomas Havens, a dutiful slave: “I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.” From Jane Ellis, a devoted mother of three: “If you are allowed back to that previous place, will you check Cathryn’s clothing and console Maribeth and tell Alice it is not a sin to fail in one’s first attempt? Assure them I have been thinking of them since I arrived here and am trying to make my way home.”

The passages that do feature Lincoln forge a renewed appreciation for how agonizing a period this was in his life. It is painful to read about his devastation at losing a beloved child, especially amid the heavy backdrop of the Civil War.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is unlike any other book. Readers will diverge on whether that’s a good or bad thing.

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