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 returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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.
The format of this book will mean that its not going to appeal to everyone. It is told in multiple voices—book excerpts, newspaper quotes, and numerous ghostly voices. It can feel a bit chaotic and I often found myself searching to determine who was speaking.
Despite that, if you can live with the writing style, this is a tale of grief and love. Not only between Lincoln and his son Willie, but the love of all the poor souls who inhabit the bardo in hopes of being “just sick” instead of dead. Saunders’ vision of what this half-life would be like is original and interesting.
I found it curious that Abraham Lincoln, a respected president today, could be so reviled during his tenure. The brutality of the Civil War, of course, was the reason for the mixed opinions, leading me to muse a bit about how the leaders of the last number of decades will be remembered.
This novel touches on all the big themes—love, death, politics, religion—sympathetically but with humour too.
Read to fill the PopSugar reading challenge—a novel based on a real person.