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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders- A Review

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In the Tibetan religion, the bardo is the place between lives. I didn’t know this until I picked up this book. It’s sort of what I think some western religions call purgatory. I’m not 100% sure since I’m Methodist and we don’t have that concept in our theology. Nevertheless, this was a fantastic read. Mr. Saunders, a professor at Syracuse University is a brilliant, witty writer. 

This story starts with the last illness of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. We are also introduced to a variety of characters in the bardo itself. They don’t know they are dead. They think they are in “sick boxes” and waiting to recover and go back to their families. 

The conversations and actions of the men and women in the bardo are repetitions of what they did in life. Some retell the same stories over and over. 

We have three main protagonists there. One a reverend, and one a man who was a printer who died when a rafter hit him in the head and one who slashed his wrists when his lover took another lover, who is still “waiting” for his mother to discover him and take him to the hospital. They show us, through their points of view, the others in the bardo. Some of the conversations are poignant and some are quite amusing. Sometimes, people leave the bardo with a flash and bang when they look at a light but our main characters resist the light as they don’t want to disappear to who knows where. They are waiting for their families to come take them home and they sure want to be there when it happens. 

Interspersed between the scenes in the bardo are some quotes of various members of the public and newspapers regarding the huge party the Lincolns threw when their son was upstairs gravely ill in the White House. Many thought they were wrong to have the party that had been planned for a while. Many thought the child’s parents were to blame for his illness as they allowed him out in the snow and cold with his little pony. It was interesting to read those comments. It appears as if they are from real articles of the time. I didn’t research to be sure of that, but they read as true. Which makes the story even more poignant. If they are fiction, it increases my admiration for the author’s cleverness.

The boy eventually dies and, after a funeral, is taken to the cemetery. He arrives in the bardo and our cast of characters assure him he’s only in a sick box and will soon rejoin his life and see his father again. 

Lincoln comes to the mausoleum where Willie’s body is and the boy tries to make contact with him. Of course, Lincoln can’t hear him. 

The main characters of the bardo become worried about the boy when he’s devastated that his father can’t hear him. They are determined to help him. Maybe he should try to escape the bardo? The young ones usually do, but Willie is determined to reunite with his father and plans to stay around. 

The rest of the story is about how they try to help Willie and lessons are learned for all of them. Well, most of them, as there will always be some who choose other paths. 

This book was a quick read that pulled me in and I found myself turning pages in thrall with the story and the talent of this writer. He encourages the reader to think about life and love of family and how we, as humans, are tied to our lives. It’s sometimes hard to let go of things and this book is a lesson in how we often have to make decisions where we might put ourselves at risk. The author teaches us these things in an amusing as well as heart-rending way. His talent in switching from one to the other is beautiful and make this a very worthwhile read.  I highly recommend this one.