Words

Saunders' Story

Inside Lincoln’s White House

Get It

More:

HOW: Visit your library catalog to place a hold on Lincoln in the Bardo, available in regular and large print, book on CD, eBook and eAudiobook.
MORE: While you wait, consider reading The Tenth of December if you missed it the first time around. The audiobook promises to be a unique listening experience; with a 166-person full cast that includes David Sedaris, Carrie Brownstein, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, and the author himself (as well as a number of his family, friends and members of his publishing team).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

George Saunders is known as a short story genius; his 2013 collection, The Tenth of December, was a National Book Award finalist and named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. Saunders is also an accomplished essayist of darkly humorous pieces exploring consumerism and the role of mass media in modern life, taking an often satirical look at corporate capitalism.

Now comes his first novel, and to hear Saunders discuss it, he might have preferred that Lincoln in the Bardo remain a short story. Or even a play—he confesses to spending years trying to wrangle it into play form. However, the image that he carried for many years of Abraham Lincoln visiting his son Willie’s crypt to hold his small body one last time wouldn’t be dissuaded from becoming a full-blown novel.

The story begins on the evening of a White House party. Willie, suffering from typhoid fever, lies upstairs, still very ill, but expected to recover. Mary Todd Lincoln even saves him some sweets from the party to enjoy when he feels better. Before the night is over, however, Willie is dead and Lincoln—of all our Presidents, the one most steeped in sadness—is despairing. Looming before him is the threat of civil war. He mourns this single life lost against the backdrop of an imminent war where many lives will be lost.

Saunders is known as a “slipstream” writer who weaves fantastical elements into otherwise realistic stories. This singular evening is the historical anchor for Lincoln in the Bardo. Young Willie is interred and Saunders imagines him entering into a state known in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as the “bardo,” an in-between place full of unquiet spirits and unfinished business. Here Willie encounters numerous ghosts, all of whom speak with the authority of the long-dead about Lincoln’s grief and the pettiness and sorrow of their own histories.

Interspersed with the voices of the ghosts are actual historical accounts from this period in history. Some chapters are simply a string of sewn-together quotes from various Lincoln biographies, most real, some made up, a blending of fact and fiction that feels eerily familiar in today’s “post-fact” political climate. This is groundbreaking writing that feels alternately like the ravings of a madman and a haunting, mesmerizing story of grief and love.

Lincoln is portrayed as needing to move through his grief in order to unite a deeply divided populace who adhere to two versions of reality without a lot of hope for reconciliation. Because of the similarity to our current political divide, The Stranger heralded the story as “the first essential novel of the Donald Trump era.”

Political commentary aside, Lincoln in the Bardo also asks spiritual questions about what happens to us after we die. One of the central questions of the novel, according to Saunders, is essentially this: “We’re here, it seems pretty wonderful, it’s gonna end, how should we behave?”

In the end, Saunders succeeds in reminding us of our resilience, humanity and ability to persevere through terrible suffering.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

BoS
More Words...
Full Deck
Books that suit you

It can be challenging to find your next great read, but the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) has stacked the deck in your favor. To celebrate our 75th anniversary and our love of sharing stories, we’ve created a full deck of reading recommendations, one for each week of 2019. 

These…

more »
Deep Creek
A love letter to home

Pam Houston was 31 years old when her first book, a collection of short stories titled Cowboys are My Weakness (1992), was published to some acclaim, earning her a check for $21,000—a lot of money for someone who was living in a tent and could fit all her belongings in her Toyota…

more »
Fiction 101
Our readers write

“Flash fiction has to bring a whole story into a moment,” creative writing instructor and author Kathryn Trueblood says.

This statement was solidified for her last week, when we culled approximately 20 selections from the more than 100 wildly creative submissions of 101 words that came…

more »
Events
Today
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

12:00pm

Skagit Beer Week

11:00am|Skagit Valley

Artist Workshop

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Dig Into Spring

6:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Avian Research

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Poetry Trio

7:00pm|Village Books

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books and Brews

7:00pm|Village Books

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tomorrow
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

12:00pm

Skagit Beer Week

11:00am|Skagit Valley

City Club Meeting

11:30am|Northwood Hall

Nonprofit Brown Bag

11:30am|St. Luke's Health Education Center

Hidden in Plain Sight

4:00pm|Mt. Baker High School

Dahlias Discussion

4:00pm|Blaine Library

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Fellowship of Fire

6:30pm|Everson Library

Art Talk with Wade Marlow

7:00pm|Dakota Gallery

Jared Hall Quartet

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Foghorn Stringband

7:00pm|YWCA Ballroom

The Hunts Village Books
Thursday
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Skagit Beer Week

11:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am

Smart Business Summit

12:00pm|Pioneer Park Pavilion

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Exploring Equity

2:00pm|Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center

Happy Hour Thursdays

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Walk on the Wild Side Series

5:30pm|Firehouse Arts & Events Center

Monthly Wine Tasting

5:30pm|Old World Deli

Time Capsule Reception

6:00pm|Skagit County Historical Museum

Pub Run

6:00pm|BBay Running

Incognito

6:00pm|Ciao Thyme

Check out WA Discover Pass Backpack Program

6:30pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

House Concert with Carolyn Cruso

7:30pm|Chuckanut Center

Dyo Festival Finale

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Good, Bad, Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

see our complete calendar »

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 The Hunts Bos2 Trove Web