Told by a chorus of narrators and interspersed with a montage of passages from texts and letters, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a fictional account of the night Willie Lincoln is buried. His father’s heartbreak over the death of his young son is the focus of this story. The turmoil of the Civil War is not especially prominent as the backdrop. Only as he comes to terms with his son passing does the pressure of the war invade Lincoln’s thoughts.
A series of ghosts narrate the tale. Their life (but mostly death) stories are brief, but manage to create rich histories for each character. Written and told through the language of the 1860s, the modern concept of spirituality has no place here. These are old fashion ghosts and their world has the same inequalities and harsh realities as the physical world. Slave ghosts and white ghosts are segregated; poor and feeble-minded ghosts are lower class; women ghosts carry the burdens of their earthly life; ghosts of young dandies behave like tamer versions of today’s frat boys.
Social constructs in this limbo mirror the physical world and trap the ghosts in ways that prevent them from realizing they are dead. There are no children in this ghostly world, for children do not belong here. As the ghosts struggle to help free Willie’s soul, they come to terms with their own death and this breaks the bonds holding them to the ghost world.
Mixed in with the storytelling are passages from historical and fictional texts, letters, and remembrances of Willie’s death and the impact on the President and his wife. Through these tales, Lincoln’s humanity and sorrow cast a long shadow over the story.
The account told is a sad chapter in a great man’s life, yet it does have moments of lightness and humor. The ghosts manage to carry all the imperfections, quirks, and foibles of their former human entities. This makes them both endearing and annoying to each other.
Lincoln in the Bardo is probably not like anything you’ve read before. As a work of historical fiction, the actual history surrounding the event has very little to do with the story. Lincoln’s presidency has no impact on the events occurring in the graveyard. The ghosts telling the story have no sense of the magnitude of Lincoln’s place in the living world or in history. Lincoln says very little; he is simply a grieving father. This creates a universal story to which everyone can relate.