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Lincoln in the Bardo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lincoln in the Bardo ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I didn’t know what “bardo” meant, so I looked it up. It’s a Buddhist concept, meaning the state of being between death and rebirth. Buddhists, of course, believe in reincarnation. When you die, your spirit must go to an in-between place, the bardo, until you are born again into another body. Beings in the bardo, many of them, don’t know there are dead; they believe they only need to “revive” in order to return to the former place, the state of being alive. In the bardo, the ordinary rules of physics that govern the world are suspended. Some beings take strange forms, while others must undergo a kind of punishment before they move on.  

The Lincoln in Lincoln in the Bardo is, of course, Abraham Lincoln. In February 1862, his eleven-year-old son, Willie, dies in the White House of typhoid fever. On top of the already heaven burden Lincoln is bearing with the terrible war that is raging between the North and the South, his grief is almost insupportable.

Willie’s body is placed temporarily in a borrowed crypt in a cemetery. Lincoln has the key to the crypt and begins making nighttime visits, where he opens Willie’s coffin and takes his body out and holds it in his arms. Unknown to Lincoln, Willie, in the bardo, is observing his father while this is going on, trying to get his attention. Other people in the bardo, knowing (or being told) that Lincoln is President of the United States, believe that Willie is a prince who might be able to help them with their problems or help them get what they want.

There are three fictional (deceased) men in the bardo (Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman, and Reverend Everly Thomas) trying to aid little Willie Lincoln, to help him to move on so he won’t be in the bardo forever. We learn the life stories of these three and how they ended up in the bardo themselves. As the novel progresses, we also pick up some interesting information about Lincoln’s life in the White House, his depression and grief, what people were saying about him at the time, and Willie’s illness and embalmment.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by a writer named George Saunders, is a historical novel and also a fantasy, combining the factual and the fictional. It’s a non-traditional novel, unlike anything I ever read before. Some might even say it’s experimental. I don’t like the designation “experimental,” because it implies that the novel is so “hip” (avant-garde) you can’t stand it and you have to be “ultra-hip” yourself (a hippie or a beatnik, at least) to be able to appreciate it. On the contrary, Lincoln in the Bardo has a sort of old-fashioned feel, a complete departure (thank goodness!) from what life is like today. When you start reading Lincoln in the Bardo, you probably won’t know what’s going on at first, but if you stick with it and don’t give up, you’ll figure it out soon enough—it’s not that difficult. You won’t be bored while you’re reading it and when you get to the end you’ll feel enriched for having had the experience.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp