On February 20, 1862, approximately one year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died from a typhoid-like disease. Willie’s death left Mary Todd inconsolable and sent her into mourning for a year. Abraham Lincoln likewise was mourning the loss of his son, but with the country in crisis, had to spend his days dealing with the war and trying to save the country. But at night, Lincoln would make trips to the Georgetown cemetery where his son was interred and remove his son’s body from its crypt and hold it.
In Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders borrows from the Tibetan Buddhist concept of where a soul goes immediately following death, before it moves on to whatever comes next. The Tibetans refer to that state as the bardo, and Saunders places young Willie there and uses him, along with an assortment of other disembodied souls to describe Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery and to tell his emotional story.
Most of the book reads like a movie script. Instead of a traditional narrative, Saunders alternates between the dialogue of his assortment of characters and a collection of historical facts and semi-facts, which he pulled from books and news accounts of events around that time. This unique method makes the book a very quick read, and I think it accomplished what Saunders set out to do by using it. But at times I found it tedious and burdensome to my reading of the book. I was continually tempted to overlook who was speaking as I wanted to read through the dialogue quickly and I had to force myself to keep track of the character speaking.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆