Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

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The “devastatingly moving” (Peoplefirst novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, USA Today, and Maureen Corrigan, NPR • One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book • One of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of the Year

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo
 is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812995350
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 4,747
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

Read an Excerpt

Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:

We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.

Then let out a sob

Dear Father crying    That was hard to see    And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

Saying all this to the worm!    How I wished him to say it to me    And to feel his eyes on me    So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all    Say, it felt all right   Like I somewhat belonged in

In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father

And could know exactly what he was

Could feel the way his long legs lay     How it is to have a beard      Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—

It has done me good.

I believe it has.

It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.

Then Father touched his head to mine.

Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.

willie lincoln

Reading Group Guide

1. The presence of a child in the bardo is rare, but what other things about Willie make him different from the other ghosts?

2. Which of the ghosts’ stories resonated with you the most?

3. How did the style and form of the book enhance or detract from your experience of the story? What did you think of the author’s decision to include snippets of real, historical sources among the fictional narration?

4. In what ways do the social structures of this time period manifest in the bardo? How does Saunders play with and explore historical attitudes towards race and class throughout the novel?

5. In what ways does Saunders challenge and expand the genre of historical fiction? Why do you think Lincoln and his legacy remain such popular subjects in literature today?

6. It is unknown, both to the reader and to the character of the Reverend Everly Thomas, why he is damned, even though he understands that he is dead. What do you think is meant by this omission?

7. On page 87, the Reverend Everly Thomas explains the Barons’ existence on either side of the dreaded fence as not about wealth per se, but about being “wealthy in spirit.” Discuss what this means, and how it relates to the slaves’ ability to be near the fence while the other ghosts remain unable to stand such proximity.

8. Roger Bevins says that “all were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” Vollman responds by saying “It was the nature of things” and that we are all “suffering, limited beings.” Do you agree?

9. George Saunders has described the question at the core of this book as, “How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?” Did you find this to be true, and do you feel like you came to a deeper understanding of mortality?

10. Towards the end, the ghosts unite in an attempt to “enter” Lincoln’s mind and stop him from leaving the graveyard. In doing so, they find themselves transformed from their wretched states, remembering parts of their lives that had been lost to them since entering the bardo. Discuss the significance of this transformation.

11. Discuss the final scene, in which Thomas Havens follows Lincoln out of the graveyard on horseback. What do you think this foreshadows?

Customer Reviews

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Lincoln in the Bardo 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was drawn into realm both fantastic and real. The human experience of our common mortality and our shared experience of grief because of that mortality is captured so eloquently, with both humor and pathos, that it is hard to realize one is under the spell of genius level fiction!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Makes you stop and think about not only our fragility but also the weight we carry not only in body but also in the soul. The historical snippits are so thoughtfull as to make you realize what a very human story this is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking and poignant
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed. But, that sometimes happens when something is so highly praised.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This story is not a novel but an over extended short story. Dissapointing read.
CRSK More than 1 year ago
4.5 Stars How does one review a book such as this one? No words could possibly truly convey the potential journey a reader is embarking on when they open this novel. This is certainly nothing like any other book I’ve read, in concept or in style. Before I requested this, I looked up several references to the definition of the bardo, both the Tibetan definition and how it’s meaning carries beyond the definition. Bardo is the “in-between place” a “transitional state,” the period of the afterlife between two states – our former “reality” is no longer, the bardo seems much like a waiting space before you enter into your next phase of “life.” I would say this applies to the bereaved, as well as the deceased. Your former life has changed, and a period of time must pass before one may move on to the next phase, rebuild. William Wallace Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, had been sick off and on since the beginning of the year, as had his brother Tad. On February 20, 1862 at 5:00pm, Willie died – most likely of typhoid fever. Willie was eleven years old. After Willie’s death, Abraham Lincoln often visited the crypt where Willie was interred, which continued for months. Holding him. This fact is the basis for this novel. The majority of conversations throughout Lincoln in the Bardo are between the deceased who remain in the bardo. The conversations are sometimes more like ramblings, sometimes multiple inputs from the others that are often more a cacophony than harmonious choir of thoughts. Willie waits among them, waiting for his father’s return. Lincoln, in his grief, is in his own state of waiting, his mind unwilling to accept the reality. Amidst all of the conversations are excerpts of historical texts regarding Lincoln’s behavior, his suffering. Some are letters sent to the President regarding the War from grieving parents. Some are compassionate and lovely. All paint a picture of an unbearable loss. Lincoln’s loss. The loss of the families whose sons were fighting in the war, or who had fought and were never coming home. Having never read anything by George Saunders before, I am a bit in awe of the thought process that went into this rather astounding and poignant debut novel. I loved this, despite heartbreaking moments, it is strangely wonderful, the brilliance behind it still shone through. Recommended. Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I like historical fiction, this was extremely difficult for me to get through. The changing narratives of characters caught in purgatory and little action made this a tedious read. It may have one awards for a unique writing style, but definitely did not hold my interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Once I got several chapters in and understood what was going on and how it is being conveyed, I couldn't put it down. Finished it in very short time.
Anonymous 5 months ago
I spent three nights, merely reading, following the soft flow of phrases, perceptionsthis is like Virginia Woolf's THE WAVES, beautifully frustrating, cumbersome, fragile
Anonymous 7 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yawn. Taking it to the Salvation Army.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not enjoy any of this book. Not a page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You have to persevere through the first quarter but then you will start to get this truly unusual book.
smg5775 More than 1 year ago
Interesting way to look at death. It took me 80 pages to get into the book then I enjoyed it. I also had the wrong Lincoln, which did not help at the beginning. I liked how the historical records were interwoven into the story with the ghosts. I also liked how Vollmer and Blevins wanted what was best and right for Willie. They were funny at times. The three bachelors and their hats were comic relief. I liked how we readers got to learn more about the cemetery inhabitants as they tell their stories in their own words. Some are very quick. Others linger. Not what I expected but worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An amazing story told in a whole new way. Fascinating until the regrettable end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very bizarre book. I absolutely dug it. It took me a couple of "chapters" to get into the groove of the writing/format, but then it clicked and I was sucked in and it turned into a one-sitting read. The book kind of bounces between characters in the bardo (purgatory-like place) and compiled footnotes on what was happening during that time period around Lincoln and the loss of his son. I have to say that I enjoy when I pick up a book that reads atypical. The style and format of this book is not your typical novel and it came to be one of the things I loved about the way this story is told. For me, it worked perfectly for this particular journey. I love history and I love Lincoln's history, so having him be a pivotal character made me all giddy. The cast of characters in the bardo were fascinating and there's this scene near the end involving them that I just absolutely loved, gah! All in all, a brilliantly crafted examination of life, death, grief, regret, acceptance.
keepssecrt More than 1 year ago
I understand why some reviewers are slamming this book--it can be somewhat difficult to follow. That being said, I thought it was brilliant! I actually shed a tear or two--never had that happen while reading, that I can remember, at least. Very touching and tender--also funny and stimulating. I wish I could think of someone to share it with. It really is such an unusual book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Expected more about Lincoln. Didn't care for the way the story was presented. Always jumping around. Bets and pieces about the terrible Civil War when brother's fought against brother's. Family's torn apart and a President trying to free the salves. You got some of pieces but not enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was by far one of the worst books I have ever read! I wanted to give it minus 5 stars! Seriously, it was just a bunch of ramblings-- not compelling in the least. I would like the author to send me a full refund and an apology for wasting my time!
ChattyPat More than 1 year ago
Not Jumping On This Bandwagon Heard so much hype about this novel, I thought I was in for a treat. No so. I read. I read a lot. And I know, straight off, when I’m beginning a book that isn’t good. Guess what? This one isn’t good. It’s disjointed, rambling, trying to be something that it never gets to be. The idea, the premise, was interesting. This endeavor to be that is not. Never even wasted enough time to get past half way into it. There are too many really fascinating books out there to spend time on one that isn’t. Sorry but I have no time to fritter away on something that might have been. I’ll go right on into something that makes it happen.
bbtapper More than 1 year ago
This has to be the worst book I've ever read! Gratuitous filth and large amounts of strangeness that fill pages , and have nothing to do with the plot as advertised! Perhaps Mr. Saunders should take some creative writing classes instead of trying to "teach" them! This book is a waste of time and money!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cannot understand what all the hype is over this book. This is one of the worst I have ever read. A COMPLETE MESS. NOT RECOMMENDED!!
ClarenceClown More than 1 year ago
I love to read but I did not enjoy the authors style. I'm probably just not brilliant enough to get this book. Can I get my money back, B&N? Bad recommendation.