It’s not often that I’m surprised by a book, but Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Part historical fiction, part supernatural fantasy, Bardo breaks free from the traditional format of a novel to tell the story of how Lincoln is haunted – and changed – by the death of his young son during the Civil War.
The author takes two very different tacts in alternating chapters. About half of the novel takes place in the cemetery where Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, is buried. The cemetery is populated by the spirits of dozens of colorful characters who have not yet passed on to Heaven or Hell. While these spirits tell their stories, they’re encouraging Willie to move on, but Willie lingers, confused, hoping his father will return to bring him home. This part of the novel is pure imagination, whimsical in the quirks that each character is given and the rules followed by the society within the cemetery gates. These chapters reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, about an orphan raised by ghosts when his parents are killed.
The rest of the novel is historical fiction, but instead of researching and imagining the people and events, the author uses only excerpts from primary sources. The author quotes the letters of White House maids and politicians as well as news accounts and books of the time. These excerpts, each followed by a short citation, tell the story in the real words of the people who lived. Writing like this is harder than just doing research and summarizing; this requires poring through countless documents, picking out just the right pieces and putting them together in a way that makes sense. I was awed by the task the author undertook as well as the story that was told. For the first chapter or two, I was a little confused by who was speaking. But soon I was drawn into the story and comfortable with the unique structure.
If you like history, especially Lincoln and the Civil War, this novel will fascinate you as it shows how a personal tragedy became a turning point for Lincoln’s policies. If you like fantasy that explores what happens after death, this book offers a lot for you as well.
Featured Photo: Robert Wuensche Illustration / Houston Chronicle