Lincoln in the Bardo

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“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'”   – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).

After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.

It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.

During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.

“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton. 

George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.

It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.

You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.

“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”

Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)

 

 

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

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