13. Lincoln in the Bardo

“On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.”

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

For the first time since I started this blog, I re-read this book before I wrote about it.  I was just so enraptured of it, and so moved, and feel so strongly that it is important, I wanted to make sure that I had it down before I decided what I wanted to say.  And it was so easy to read, and to re-read - to me, at least the book flew away from me. I just became consumed with each read, and with each read I read it basically in one sitting.  All of which to say is, this is a tremendous book.

It is, of course, strongly in my wheelhouse - a meditation on death and loss, through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln and the death of his young son, Willie in the middle of the Civil War touches on many of the themes that have long resonated with me.  I wrote my college honors thesis on the Civil War and mourning culture, I am a Lincoln fiend (speaking of which, if you haven’t read the children’s picture book Lincoln’s Dreams by Lane Smith, please please go get yourself a copy!), the thought of loss between a child and parent has personal resonance given my heath situation, etc. etc.  But I cannot believe there is a person who could read this book and not marvel and be moved by it.

The premise is a bit complicated.  We are in Rock Creek Park cemetary (a place I used to walk by on my way to work every single day, so for me at least, visualization was not a problem), and we are among a series of spirits in limbo - the bardo is a Tibetian concept of limbo.  The characters believe they are sick, in “sick boxes” but it’s not a spoiler to say they are ghosts, hanging on to the shreds of their lives.  (I seriously hope that wasn’t a spoiler - it was evident to me immediately, sorry if I blew it for you).  Willie Lincoln, Abe’s 9 year old son, arrives in spirit for,, having died of typhoid fever.  Lincoln arrives too, overwrought with sadness.  The question that hovers is whether Willie will move on, or attempt to remain in limbo.  

The chapters alternate between the commentary of the souls in the bardo, and chapters that consist of quotes (some real and some fabricated) about Lincoln.  Altogether it makes it an anothology about sadness, loss, despair - and hope, and bravery and moving on.  And while there are parts I struggle to understand (SPOILER - why is it that children who remain are punished in such a horrible way, while adults are allowed to linger with much less brutal consequences), I was so moved by the book, so enraptured.  It is hard to imagine I will read a better book this year.

I have to include some quotes in this review: 

pg. 49-50:

“One feels such love for the little ones, such anticipation that all that is lovely in life will be known by them, such fondness for that set of attributes manifested uniquely in each: mannerisms of bravado, of vulnerability, habits of speech and mispronouncement and so forth; the smell of the head and hair, the feel of the tiny hand in yours — and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world.  From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.
                           In “Essay Upon the Loss of a Child” by Mrs. Rose Miland”

(but really by George Saunders)

On Lincoln - pg. 147

“There as a touch of prairie about the fellow”


“Like stepping into a summer barn late at night.”

“Or a musty plains office, where some bright candle still burns.”

“Vast. Windswept.  New. Sad.”

“Spacious. Curious. Doom-minded. Ambitious.”

“Back slightly out.”

“Right boot chafing.”

Lincoln, thinking of Willie (pg. 155-156)

“Trap. Horrible trap.  At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body.  Bad enough, Then we must bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded.  That baby must also depart.  All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear to us, we forget.”

Oh, this barely captures it, but please do yourself a favor and read Lincoln in the Bardo.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017