When my mother tells me I have to read a book, it’s written in a way no other book she’s ever read is written, and then gives me the book, I read it. I was so impressed by this unprecedented move on her part, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in less than 24 hours.
Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, that Lincoln. And his son, Willie. The one who died. And the Bardo, according to Saunders’ website, is what purgatory is known as in the Tibetan tradition.
As you may remember, William Wallace Lincoln died of apparent typhoid at the age of 11 in 1872, during Lincoln’s second year in office. Specifically, he died at 5 p.m. on February 24, a few days after the Lincolns hosted an extravagant state dinner during which the President and First Lady traipsed upon and down the White House stairs any number of times to check on their beloved child. In Saunders’ novel, the two events — dinner and death — seem to occur simultaneously. Newspapers reported at the time that Lincoln returned to Willie’s crypt several times.
From this truth, Saunders launches a spectacularly innovative novel, a large portion of which is composed of a compilations of citations from actual historical novels. The rest of the narrative is composed of the voices of … well, of the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie Lincoln was entombed.
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Especially given what we knew.
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His boy was not “in some bright place, free of suffering.”
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Not “resplendent in a new mode of being.”
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As is their custom, several denizens of the cemetery greet young Willie moments after he arrives, expecting him to move on quickly, as most young people do, in the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” by which the cemetery dwellers leave the place. But Willie doesn’t move on. He’s waiting. Waiting to see what his father wants him to do.
In the course of Willie’s wait, we meet dozens, hundreds perhaps, of the cemetery folks,
most of whom believe they are “sick,” having arrived there in a “sick-box,” and temporarily detained from their other, earth-bound life. In the cemetery, as in the country, there is dissension: all of the black residents must remain outside the iron fence with the criminals and low class whites. Each resident has his or her own distinct view of why they are in the bardo and how long they may have to wait, but none other than a reverend who ran away from his own judgment day seem to have any awareness of his or her own state; that is “dead.”
I found Saunders’ reach into the historical citations and commentary a fascinating tool. He compiles these quotations not as a means of bolstering his own story, but quite often to show the divergence of history reportage. In fact, perhaps he is making the commentary that fact is as fictional as fiction. A stimulating concept in these days of fake news.
A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.
In “White House Soirees: An Anthology”
By Bernadette Evon.
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.
Wickett, op. cit.
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to human folly.
In “My Life,” by Delores P. Leventrop.
The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.
Sloane, op. cit.
If this reminds you of Our Town, you’re not alone. I’ve had the good fortune of performing in both Thornton Wilder’s beloved play and in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and it seems to me that Lincoln in the Bardo owes as much to these two dramas as it does to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Edward Gorey’s body of work.
I most enjoyed the sections of the novel that escorted me inside Abraham Lincoln’s mind, Saunders’ portrait of the turmoil of family and country roiling the President, the citations of historical criticism that speculated Lincoln would be the worst president in history.
In short, thanks Mom!
The menu for the state dinner is given in a quotation from Epstein, as “tender pheasant, fat partridge, venison steaks, Virginia hams . . . canvasback ducks, fresh turkeys, and thousands of tidewater oysters shucked an hour since and iced, slurped raw, scalloped in butter and cracker meal, or stewed in milk.”
Additionally, there are descriptions of towering sugar confections, where chocolate fish swim in a pond of candy floss and hives swarming with lifelike sugar bees are filled with charlotte russe.
According to Betty Crocker, a “russe” is a molded dessert. Charlotte Russe is made of lady fingers and Bavarian cream. I found a nice explanation and a recipe for a Victorian Charlotte Russe on the Great British Bake-Off web site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/the-great-british-bake-off-how-to-make-a-charlotte-russe/.
My menu would include small muffins and rolls with turkey and Virginia ham. I would avoid the pheasant, partridge and venison, since I don’t have a source for those, but oysters depending on the time of year would be fun.
A few years ago, I was able to perform in the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration at Washington’s Kennedy Center as part of the Lexington Singers organization. Our performance was comprised of multiple Civil War songs including The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, the Battle Cry of Freedom, the Star-Spangled Banner. My favorite was a version of Shenandoah. This is a lovely version of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1EG_4IBzbA.
Happy reading and eating!