Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (♦♦♦♦)
Blurb taken from Barnes and Noble:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery…Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is an unconventional novel, both in topic and structure. Interspersed with the chapters that describe the spiritual journey of young Willie Lincoln in the graveyard, are chapters sprinkled with historical sources about: 1) the official reception the Lincolns had at the White House while young Willie lay sick in bed; 2) the opinion some of his contemporaries had on President Lincoln’s character and management of the war effort; 3) the first big battle of the Civil War in which the casualties amounted to more than a thousand; and 4) accounts on young Willie’s character and personality.
The chapters in the graveyard are structured more or less like a theatrical production, or an endless conversation primarily among three main characters—those that protect Willie’s soul and try to convince him to move on—through which Willie’s soul’s journey in the graveyard emerges. The rest of the inhabitants of the graveyard tell their stories too, giving a glimpse of contemporary living through all walks of life.
As I said before, Lincoln in the Bardo is an unconventional novel, but don’t let that be off-putting. I found it endearing and I chuckled on occasions despite the somber topic. I also learned a bit about President Lincoln through the historical sources. My only complaint is that I wish it had been a tad shorter, particularly towards the end.