#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented
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 returns, alone, to the crypt several times 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 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. Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
Praise for Lincoln in the Bardo
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, TheNew York Times Book Review
“A masterpiece.”—Zadie Smith
“Ingenious . . . Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.”—Vogue
“Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.”—Harper’s Magazine
George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Read an Excerpt
Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:
We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
Then let out a sob
Dear Father crying That was hard to see And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no
You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.
Saying all this to the worm! How I wished him to say it to me And to feel his eyes on me So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all Say, it felt all right Like I somewhat belonged in
In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father
And could know exactly what he was
Could feel the way his long legs lay How it is to have a beard Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to— It has done me good. I believe it has. It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.
Then Father touched his head to mine.
Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.
1. The presence of a child in the bardo is rare, but what other things about Willie make him different from the other ghosts?
2. Which of the ghosts’ stories resonated with you the most?
3. How did the style and form of the book enhance or detract from your experience of the story? What did you think of the author’s decision to include snippets of real, historical sources among the fictional narration?
4. In what ways do the social structures of this time period manifest in the bardo? How does Saunders play with and explore historical attitudes towards race and class throughout the novel?
5. In what ways does Saunders challenge and expand the genre of historical fiction? Why do you think Lincoln and his legacy remain such popular subjects in literature today?
6. It is unknown, both to the reader and to the character of the Reverend Everly Thomas, why he is damned, even though he understands that he is dead. What do you think is meant by this omission?
7. On page 87, the Reverend Everly Thomas explains the Barons’ existence on either side of the dreaded fence as not about wealth per se, but about being “wealthy in spirit.” Discuss what this means, and how it relates to the slaves’ ability to be near the fence while the other ghosts remain unable to stand such proximity.
8. Roger Bevins says that “all were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” Vollman responds by saying “It was the nature of things” and that we are all “suffering, limited beings.” Do you agree?
9. George Saunders has described the question at the core of this book as, “How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?” Did you find this to be true, and do you feel like you came to a deeper understanding of mortality?
10. Towards the end, the ghosts unite in an attempt to “enter” Lincoln’s mind and stop him from leaving the graveyard. In doing so, they find themselves transformed from their wretched states, remembering parts of their lives that had been lost to them since entering the bardo. Discuss the significance of this transformation.
11. Discuss the final scene, in which Thomas Havens follows Lincoln out of the graveyard on horseback. What do you think this foreshadows?
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