Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A friend disliked this book so much but I’d been watching it and been intrigued.  So, because  he and I disagree on books from time to time,  and because of the generally positive critical reception the novel has garnered,  I went ahead.  Actually,  I got both the Audible and Kindle formats because from what I’d read the structure seemed so unique and the “plot” so original I felt it would be helpful to straightening things out.

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
2017 / 367 pages
read by a whole cast 7h 25m
rating /  9.25  –  contemp historical fiction 

On February 19, 1862  Willie Lincoln, age 11,  is dying in an upstairs bedroom at the White House while a state dinner is going on in the formal rooms below.  His parents are both attending the dinner.

Five days later Willie’s body is taken to a nearby crypt.

So many people died during the Civil War from Willie Lincoln (the President’s young son) to the thousands of soldiers in the war and all the people doing the things of their lives and dying, naturally or no.  There were rich and poor, black and white, young and old dying.  Some died in their beds and others in fires or scenes of ungodly violence.

These are their fictional stories,  real and imaginary,  as they leave their bodies and pass into and hopefully through a place called the “Bardo.”

It’s also the story of those they left – the life of Mrs Lincoln as she lived out the days following Willie’s death and more particularly of Mr Lincoln as he endured his his grief which was reported on by many at the time.

The story is told in the voices of 166 (!) characters of various sorts and the Audible version uses a whole cast of characters.  Some are historical figures,  others are purely fictional.   Of the latter,  the two most important are “roger bevins iii”   and “hans vollman” (uncapitalized to show they are not living I suppose)  who serve as “guides” for newcomers to the Bardo – these two seem to be stuck there and do this welcoming and advising to pass the time.

There are differences between the Kindle book and the Audio –  the written narrative has every single character or reference named – the Audio sometimes doesn’t do that during simple conversations.  The Audio narrator says the whole indicated word when the printed version says “F’’.”   I recommend using both for clarity,  although if I had to choose one it would be the print version.  (And that said,  the Audible version is exceptional.)

So…   I  was thoroughly enjoying myself through the first 10% or so  which is about the death of Lincoln’s son,  Willie,  and Lincoln’s visit to the boy’s corpse.   This is followed by more conversations of the ghosts (roger iii and vollman)  in “Bardo” (a Tibetan word meaning “intermediate state)  with more Bardo residents when the language got quite vulgar and it was really jarring.   (I’m okay with vulgar language in my reading material – I loved A Brief History of Seven Killings –  but this is over the top.)  I suppose in fairness to Sanders a lot of foul-mouthed  and angry people died as well and everyone goes to Bardo –

But there are only a few places like that and many, many  places which are just as tender and  touching as the first chapters.  The tone swings from really extremely sad to quite humorous and from Civil War dead in huge numbers to individuals dying alone or with loved ones.  It’s not an easy book.

I’m reminded of the third act of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

There is a plot which follows the illness and death of Willie Lincoln all the way to his funeral and a bit beyond.   His father the President,  his mother Mary Todd Lincoln,  and a few others are followed though those dark days – some of them are reporting on the death and its effects – some are contemporary historians.

A LOT of research went into this book with the effect being one of some kind of reality  with so many points of view detailing the events and all the sources are noted – and I checked enough of them to know they are real books written by real authors including real memoirs of real people who witnessed a heartbreak in the middle of a war.

There are a total of 166 characters inserting their problems and ideas and difficulties in the novel  – many between life and death,  when the soul is leaving the body or has left and is waiting to actually be gone.  Others come from that point in history.

“Isabella Perkins from The Civil War Letters of Isabella Perkins compiled and edited by Nash Perkins III.”   There are several longer pieces from her and Nash Perkins.

The narrative as written in  print format is like the script of a play but without stage directions.

One chapter is exceedingly hard on Lincoln – well,  I’m not surprised.  There are war protesters for every war,  to draft Northerners into a war to keep the South in the Union when it wanted to leave,   OR go into a murderous war for the sake of slaves,  made no sense to many Northerners and they were pissed off.   And when the deaths piled up (more fatalities than the total of all the other wars from the American Revolution to the Korean War) the outcry would have been fierce.

Bottom line – this book needs a couple readings to really get a sense of the characters,  which ones repeat, which ones have one story,  to see if there are any or many connections other than being deceased – I don’t think that would be the case because at least a part of the point seems to be the number and variety of very recently deceased people.

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4 Responses to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

  1. biblioglobal says:

    It’s an intriguing structure, but I started reading it and decided I didn’t like it. Or at least, I didn’t like it enough to read a whole novel written that way. It’s interesting that you say that many of the commenters are real. I looked up a couple of the references and it seemed to me that they were fictional, so I assumed that they were all fictional. I think I would have appreciated it more if I realized that most of them were real.


    • I think that’s the way my friend felt. The commentators which were real were the ones where whole sources were named – I checked some of those sources and there they were available on Amazon. The ones with only names and no associated source were fictional – at least that’s how my thinking went. Otoh, I may have missed some sourced characters/subjects which weren’t actually real.


  2. I skimmed your review as the kids bought me this for Mothers Day (yay!). I do love Saunders writing but I have heard mixed things about the book.


    • Well, it’s beautifully done – part history with sources and part completely imaginary. This is about Willie Lincoln’s death at age 11 and the effect on his father (President Lincoln) as well as many other people. A lot of it takes place in “the Bardo” which means “transition place” in Tibetan. So it’s what’s going on while Willie is waiting to transition into actual deceased – he’s a “ghost” for most of the novel.

      I guess I can see where some people might have problems with that concept but I didn’t. Also there is some really raunchy talk by a couple of the other ghosts who are still in transition.

      This takes place in the second year of our Civil War – thousands of soldiers dying as well as Willie and other people.

      Liked by 1 person

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