Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is estimated that over 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Many of these are straightforward biographies, while others take quite a few liberties with his life (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter comes to mind). With all of these published works, it is quite easy to think there could be no new way of looking at the life of our 16th president, but George Saunders has proven that it can be done.

In February 1862, Lincoln is embroiled in the Civil War and fighting battles of his own in Washington. He and Mary Todd Lincoln are hosting a political party while their 11-year-old son Willie lies upstairs sick with typhoid. When Willie dies the next day, he is interred in the cemetery across the street where he encounters the other residents of the cemetery including Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. These residents and Willie are in the “bardo” a Tibetan word for a transitional zone; in this book it is the place these ghosts inhabit between life and what comes after. When President Lincoln visits in the middle of the night, consumed with grief, Willie vows not to move on. Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas take it upon themselves to convince him to go as children do not fare well when they stay behind. As the night wears on, the ghosts go to more extreme measures to ensure young Willie goes on.

Saunders tells this tale by interweaving narration from these three and others ghosts with first-hand accounts of events in Washington and from the war from newspapers and letters from the time. This format is confusing at first but quickly becomes natural to navigate and gives an impression of the turmoil surrounding Lincoln and the scrutiny of his every move during this time. He was not yet the lauded “Lincoln” we know today, but a man heartbroken for his family and his country.

Normally a writer of short stories and essays, Saunders’s first novel is reminiscent of those forms as well as the works of Dante and Beckett. Lincoln in the Bardo is at times haunting and poignant and others laugh-out-loud funny. The audiobook version is a real treat. With 166 actors including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and George Saunders as Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend, it sounds more like a reader’s theater performance than a normal audiobook.

- Portia Kapraun

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