Just a dad with a really big job

Cover of Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
A review of Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders

This prize-winning first novel from George Saunders bends the mind and history in a way that still has me reeling. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the days following eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln's death in February of 1862, at a borrowed crypt in a Washington, DC cemetery filled with ghosts of all sizes and stripes, many of whom don't know they are dead, and all of whom are surprised when a very tall, very alive President Lincoln comes to visit. 

The President spends a significant amount of time in the crypt with his son, as newspapers of the day reported. What happens in the crypt no one knows for certain, but Saunders writes of a father whose love is so strong and grief so wide that it transcends life and death.  

There are many characters, real and imagined, in the "bardo" and it is sometimes hard to keep everyone straight. Each brings depth and diversity to this place that is a Tibetan term for the Buddhist "intermediate state" between death and reincarnation when the soul is not connected to a body. Souls of the rich and poor, black and white, slave and free, prejudiced and progressive mingle with the President and each other resulting in a wild and massive reckoning like no other.

At its core, this book is about grieving and acceptance of death. Liberally placed quotes from the news and publications about the Civil War, the Lincoln family and the death of Willie provide context and tone throughout the book. This took a while for me to get used to but it added greatly to my reading experience. Humans do not remember events the same way and that adds to the confusion of the novel. What was the sky like the night Willie Lincoln died? Was it a new moon, a full moon, was it cloudy? How did Willie Lincoln get sick? Were his parents overindulgent during a chaotic inauguration season that was also rainy and storming? Or was his illness most likely typhoid fever, contracted by consuming contaminated food or water? What of his brother, Tad, who was also sick? This hit close to home during this cold and flu season and made me ever grateful for modern medicine.

I'm thinking about Abraham Lincoln this Presidents' Day. If you're thinking about him, too, there's more to discover about Abe and his family about four hours south of Madison in Springfield, Illinois, and further on into Kentucky. I gained a lot of insight into the parenting styles of Abe and Mary Lincoln, their marriage, their relationships with their children, and their personalities and demeanor on a recent trip through the area. Visiting the Lincoln Presidential Museum, in particular, made me understand the level of grief that would lead a parent to wait in a cold and darkened tomb with their child, holding on to any spark of life. Most of these sites are part of the National Park Service and free of charge to visit. Several of the websites also include a virtual tour.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace - Lincoln's boyhood home, an old log cabin at Knob Creek, Kentucky.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum - located in Springfield, Illinois.  A state-of-the-art tribute to Abraham Lincoln's life as a boy, young lawyer, husband and father, Senator and President.  The majority of the museum is dedicated to his time in the White House and during the Civil War and what that meant to his family.

Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices - still sitting at 6th and Adams Streets in downtown Springfield.  Currently undergoing restoration.

Lincoln Neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois - four blocks of historic structures dating back to Lincoln's time, restored and preserved by the National Park Service.

Lincoln Tomb - managed by the Lincoln Monument Association and operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  

Lincoln in the Bardo is the Winner of the Man Booker Prize, A New York Times Notable Book, One of Time's Ten Best Novels of the Year, and available in Too Good to Miss collections at the library.