The Verdict: 4.5/5
Who Should Read: People who enjoy historical fiction and/or a bit of whimsy
In the early days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln loses his 11-year-old son Willie. At the time, newspapers reported that the grief-stricken president returned to the Georgetown cemetery where Willie was buried in the days after the funeral to hold his son’s body.
That bit of historical fact serves as the jumping-off point for this supernatural tale. After his death, Willie finds himself in a kind of purgatory, where he meets a strange cast of ghosts, each with their own strange, sad story to tell. The longer Willie remains in this in-between place, though, the more dire his situation becomes, and his new friends soon are caught up in the battle for Willie’s soul.
Let me start by saying that Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is by no means an easy read. It’s not a book you can read on autopilot or while you’re distracted. The structure and plot are so incredibly unique that they demand your full attention.
The story is laid out almost like a movie or play script. It’s predominantly made up of dialogue, with the exception of a few chapters composed of snippets from history texts. There is no prologue, no explanation, no guide. You are thrown right into this purgatory and are expected to form your own opinions and assumptions.
Remember in your middle school English class when your teacher told you good writing “shows rather than tells”? Well, LITB is all show and no tell. You come realizations and piece things together in your own time, at your own pace. Nothing is spoon-fed to you.
All of that aside, I honestly loved this book. I was a bit concerned because I’m by no means a history buff, and I knew a little bit about the unusual format of the book before I started. I must say, though, that I relished the challenge, which I’m sure is due in no small part to how intriguing the story was.
I’d say one of the main factors that makes this book so great to read is the mix of both melancholy and humor. The parts where you’re in President Lincoln’s head as he mourns over his son’s body are so beautiful and heartbreaking:
“We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.”
However, those moments of profound sadness are often followed by inappropriate jokes from the ghosts or the chapters of historical snippets where the various sources often contradict each other — in a chapter where various texts describe a party at the White House, there are numerous conflicting accounts of what the moon looked like that night, each source saying something different. No moon, crescent moon, full moon — nobody knows. It’s ridiculous and funny to read.
I was a bit surprised about halfway through the book when the plot’s focus pivoted toward the stories of the ghosts and their efforts to help Willie move on from purgatory. However, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The full stories and thoughts of the ghosts start to come to light, giving the reader a better understanding of this supernatural world and its workings and quirks.
While I don’t think this book is for everyone, I would encourage anyone interested to read it. It is unconventional, weird and utterly wonderful.
Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Let me know what you thought in the comments!