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.
I think there’s no way around it; you’re either going to love this book or hate it.
I think what really helped me to get the form right in my head was this video:
There’s an interview with George Saunders (who’s an incredibly interesting guy!) and a part of the book played out by voice actors and it’s MAGNIFICENT!
Like I said, this really helped me to get the voices straight while eventually reading the book. You see, the book is written in two separate ways. 1) dialogue and thoughts from different character’s point of view (you get a piece of text followed by the name of the character who’s seeing or hearing these things, or thinking the thoughts). 2) Short pieces of non-fiction about the Lincolns and the war. Letters, descriptions from books, testimonies,… (some of them are false but most are real).
This is what happened. Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, dies and is laid to rest in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery. Abraham, overcome by grief, comes to the crypt at night to hold his dead child.
Meanwhile, Willie’s ghost is stuck in the Bardo (the inbetween-place) along with a lot of other ghosts who try to convince him to move on. It’s not right for a child to want to stay and the Bardo will try to claim Willie so he will never be able to leave at all. But the boy is convinced that he just has to wait so his father can come to take him home.
The other ghosts mostly think they’re just ill and will be able to go back to ‘the previous place’ in time. They don’t realise that they’re, in fact, dead but they all enjoy telling the newcomer what happened to them. The three main ghosts are Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman and the reverend Everly Thomas. And although they’re ‘ghosts’, they felt so alive to me. Especially Roger, who left his life trying to see and hear and smell and feel as much as possible. He’s the one who made me cry in the end and even thinking about it now makes me tear up again.
Lincoln saying goodbye to his son was the other big emotional moment for me. Because some parts are written as a thought process, you get this great sense of longing and sadness. It washed over me. I let it.
To say I thought this book was beautiful is an understatement. Even to say that I loved it doesn’t do it justice. This is the best book I have read in a long time. The original form added so much to the story. I think I might just have to read it again, right now…