Lincoln in the Bardo is a fitting novel to read during November, the month of the dead. Set in a Washington, DC, cemetery in February 1862, the novel combines real historical events and an imagined spiritual realm. This is a story about death and loss, moving on (or not), and redemption. As in the film The Sixth Sense, the dead of Oak Hill Cemetery don’t know they’re dead (or if they do, they are not saying so). These souls refer to their coffins as “sick boxes” and are waiting for chance to reconnect to those they loved, to get revenge, to realize goals unattained. When President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie arrives, it causes a stir among the spirits and a crisis for the central characters in the novel.
Willie Lincoln has died at age 11 and President Lincoln is distraught. While Willie’s body is in a Washington crypt, the President visits by night to hold and mourn his beloved son. A woman who lives nearby and a cemetery guard are living witnesses to this tragic event, but they are not the only ones. Within Oak Hill Cemetery, the spirits of the departed are stunned to find the boy Willie’s father returning to hold him and speak to him. This has never happened before and it causes quite a bit of excitement. The dead here are desperate to return to their past, and those they knew before their “sickness” never come to see them. Throughout this innovative novel, the reader gets to hear from the spirits of the departed and learn a bit about their lives before coming to Oak Hill. There are women who died in childbirth, bachelors who died young from various causes, criminals, soldiers, parents who lived dissolute lives and neglected their children, slaves and slave-owners. Three main characters interact with Willie: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Hans and Roger recount their lives, regrets and events leading up to their deaths without ever admitting that they died. The Reverend speaks less about his past but to the reader reveals certain shocking events that have occurred, causing him to wish to remain in the cemetery.
The presence of children is not unknown at Oak Hill, but children tend not to stay long. Their spirits leave rather quickly, in an event referred to as the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Willie’s prolonged presence is unusual, but not unheard of; there is another, a girl, who hasn’t left and the state of her soul is a matter of horror and fear to the other spirits. While they clamor for Willie’s attention, Hans, Roger and the Reverend worry about Willie and what will become of him since Willie seems to want to stay in order to keep seeing his father. The novel contains suspense and great drama, with a race against time to save not just Willie but many others.
This novel is deeply moving and quite innovative. Saunders uses a combination of real historical information and the stuff of his imagination to recreate this particular time period in Lincoln’s presidency and to illuminate the greatly varying points of view about it. Through the dead characters, Saunders is able to demonstrate the importance of trying to see with someone else’s eyes, to put oneself in another’s shoes so as to really know what it is to be compassionate and turn one’s focus away from one’s own selfish (an unattainable) desires. We are more complete and better people when we get out of our own heads and try to imagine what others have experienced. The growth arc for the main characters is beautifully written, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what was going to happen to them. There is an actual chase scene among the spirits and several deeply moving examples of self sacrifice.
Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize and many other honors, and deservedly so. It’s a brilliantly written, thoughtful and moving piece of literature and I am sure it will stay with me for a long, long time.