Latest Reading: Lincoln in the Bardo


During my week in China, I read George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), a Man Booker Prize winner. I love historical fiction and in one way, the book fulfilled this. The story centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who succumbed from typhoid fever in the first year of Lincoln’s presidency at the start of the Civil War. Lincoln had my parenting style, smothering them with love and trying to give them as many moments of joy and life experience as possible. For him to lose his son at age 11, I totally sympathized with him. Saunders fixes on a report of Lincoln going into the mausoleum where his son was buried after the funeral to see him one more time. The author uses historical accounts to give context to his son’s death. I didn’t realize that Lincoln faced so much criticism about his parenting, his handling of the war, etc. Human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 150 years as evidenced by the criticism of the president today.

The other half of the book is a ghost story. “Bardo” is a Buddhist concept (Saunders is a Buddhist) similar to the Catholic purgatory. Saunders tells the stories of the many ghosts stuck in the bardo of the cemetery in Washington DC where Willie Lincoln  was interred. The ghosts think back to their lives and deny to themselves that they are dead. It took me awhile to get into the rhythm of the book as it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative. Saunders quotes the various ghosts and they tell each other’s stories. Then there are chapters of historical research where he quotes journals of Lincoln’s contemporaries.

It was an entertaining read but the unorthodox writing style of Saunders lessened the enjoyment for me.

I always try to pick some words to add to my vocabulary that I found in the book. They are as follows:

  • consternation – feeling anxious or dismayed at an unexpected event
  • predilection – a preference or special liking for something
  • tarry – to delay or be tardy in acting or doing