Book Review {Lincoln in the Bardo}

I requested Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders from the library merely because it had been mentioned on some podcast a while back. I couldn’t even remember why I had put it on my wish list, but I realized when I opened the book that this was going to be a very different read from anything I had ever read before. To begin with, I had no idea what the “bardo” was and I realized pretty quickly that I better figure that out before I continued. The second thing was the writing style. Reviewers describe Saunder’s writing as a “non-traditional narrative”. It is written as a series of quotes from the 300 plus characters in the book. Daunting and strange as this was, I couldn’t put it down once I started reading. 

The Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist word describing a place between life and death. It wasn’t until I was nearly at the end of the novel, that I realized that I had been reading this novel about being lost in a place between life and death during the season of Lent.

The essence of this entire story centers around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. Willie becomes ill and passes away and Lincoln’s grief is palpable. He is clearly not at peace with anything in his life and the death of his young son wages a war within him much like the war that is beginning to rage up around him between the North and the South.

But Willie does not just pass on to heaven, but ends up in the Bardo with all the other souls that are lost there. Immediately Willie’s frustration with where he is is clearly evident; only he doesn’t know where he is; he thinks he is still living. He sees his father coming to visit his “white house” and yet when he tries to crawl into his father’s lap he merely passes through him. He is distraught, because this man who had so often cradled him and brought him peace and comfort doesn’t even realize he is there.

Willie is not alone in this Bardo, there are some 300 other voices that readers hear from throughout the novel, but none are as intriguing as the trio. This trio has clearly been stuck in the Bardo for longer than they even know. They become distraught over the idea of Willie being stuck in this purgatory and they know that if they do not relieve him of this place there will be no peace. The recognize their previous failure with a young girl and come together in order to prevent the same happening with Willie. For the first time the trio come together and begin to hope for something better than this place. If not for them, at least for this boy who doesn’t deserve to be stuck there.

At first glance, this is a book about death. Even worse it is a story about being stuck in a purgatory – a death but not death. But in retrospect, I think it is a story about life. Just as the season of Lent is in a sense a season of death, ultimately it is a season pointing us back to life. We sit in the darkness of our sin and in that darkness we realize how bright the Light is that is coming.

My pastor is a Hamilton fanatic and his Easter Sunday sermon centered around the quote from a Hamilton song: “Dying is easy. Living is hard.” Sitting there, surrounded by the glory of the resurrection, I immediately thought of this story. 

Death was easy for these souls because they didn’t really have a choice. Willie died because there was no cure for his sickness despite everything the doctors tried. Others died in accidents or from battles.  It was easy for them to stay in the Bardo – this in between place. There was a sense of safety there. What scared all of them most was the passing on to the place of “eternal living.” Periodically people around them would just disappear in this earthquake of leaving and this leaving was completely frightening to them. 

It is the same for us. This world that we live in, it isn’t a Bardo, but it is still an in between place.  As a believer, I know that a new Eden is coming. When I see the brokenness surrounding me, I know deep in my soul that this is not what God meant for this world. We live in a dystopian focused world. We look around and fall into just accepting that this is all there is. It is easy to see the evil and then lose hope in the future, because we think the future is tainted and filled with danger.

Living is hard because we strive for comfort. We are all terrified of pain and suffering. Our culture is filled with a million things to distract us from considering the sorrow that we are surrounded with. Those in the Bardo continued “living” on as they could within the confines of their ghostly shapes. They played tricks on one another, they traveled in and out of people, they were angry and selfish with those that took up residence in their “sick boxes”. 

They did everything they could to distract from their suffering and from those around them. They did everything they could to keep themselves from considering how to move on. 

They did everything they could to prevent Hope.

Regret moves in, keeps us stagnant and blinds us to Hope. So we stay in the place of death. We stay in our own Bardo; a death of dreams, death of what could have been, death of expectations. This death is easier than living. It is the same sort of darkness that Lincoln was stuck in and couldn’t pass through because of the death of Willie. It’s the same darkness that Willie was stuck in and couldn’t pass through until he admitted he was dead.  It is the same sort of darkness and death that those in the Bardo were in. In order to pass on to the next place, they had to look past their fears and accept and say the word of truth – that they were no longer living and in that acceptance they were able to move on. They had to hope.

This is the Gospel. When we admit that there has to be more to life than this broken world we finally come to realize that there is a way for us to have hope. There is someone who is the essence of this Hope. He chose to walk through the darkness, he chose a death and a passing through – but he passed through and rose again. 

Every Sunday our church serves the Lord’s supper and our pastor reminds us that we do have a future and we do have a hope. We take this meal as a group, surrounded by fellow believers. But unlike those stuck in the Bardo refusing to admit they are stuck, we take the bread and the wine recognizing that we have all made a choice to believe. Every time we take that meal, we choose to rattle the world around us and break the idols that we use to protect us from the darkness. 

And instead we choose the Light that breaks through.

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