Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln, age 11, has died of typhoid fever. His distraught father, President Lincoln, visits the Georgetown cemetery the night after his burial in February, 1862. The Civil War isn’t going well, and Lincoln’s in despair. His vigil that night helps him organize his thoughts and plans on how to proceed with the war. This is not a traditional historical novel, as most of the book is narrated by a chorus of the graveyard’s ghosts who do not accept the fact that they’re dead, and have not yet gone on to face judgment, a transitional state Buddhists call the bardo. The ghosts are eccentric, disturbing, sad, confused, and sometimes very vulgar and crude. They are from different times and walks of life, and talk and argue with each other. They reflect back on their imperfectly remembered lives, and are moved by Willie, as young ghosts should not linger long. They try hard to connect the president with his son’s ghost. The scenes in the cemetery alternate with short chapters of quotes, both real and fictional, of people’s reactions to Willie’s illness, death, and the unsettled state of the country. The overall tone is melancholy, and it’s a very vivid, moving read. It took me a while to adjust to the book’s unusual style. This is a first novel by a noted short story writer. This book will have the most appeal for fans of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era, and readers looking for a unique, challenging and definitely worthwhile reading experience.