I like George Saunders’s short stories, but I was skeptical of his first full-length novel. The premise—Abraham Lincoln surrounded by a chorus of ghosts at his son’s grave—seemed like something that could just be plotless introspection. I’d don’t need books to be chock full of activity, but I do want some story. It turns out that this book has a high-stakes plot. It just tells it in an unconventional way.
The book’s short chapters fall in one of two categories. Some are cobbled together from actual primary sources about Lincoln at the time of his son Willie’s death. And when I say cobbled together, I mean that most of these chapters are literally a series of quotes, sometimes just a sentence or phrase, put in order to form a narrative. As best as I can tell, most of these are real sources, but the account they present is not meant to be a definitive narrative, with Saunders sifting through sources to get at the truth. Saunders sometimes arranges the excerpts to highlight contradictions, such as the state of the moon as Willie died, and he doesn’t attempt to sort out which one is accurate.
The majority of the chapters, however, are narrated by the spirits of people at the graveyard where Willie Lincoln is interred. They ponder their own lives before their deaths, and comment on what’s happening around them. When Willie Lincoln’s spirit appears, they begin to urge him to move on, because, as one ghost, Roger Bevins III, says “these young ones are not meant to tarry.” Young ones who stay become trapped and tormented. And so the book’s plot becomes the ghosts’ quest to urge Willie Lincoln to move on.
The difficulty is that Willie’s father has come back to the grave, even going to far as to take his son’s body out of what the spirits call his “sick box” to cry and remember. The ghosts are drawn to Abraham Lincoln, struck by his grief, the levels of which are rare for them to see. And Willie doesn’t want to miss the chance to see him again once he leaves.
It took me a while to get oriented to the ghosts’ sections. There are a lot of voices, and although each is pretty distinct, it took me a while to work out who’s who. And not all of their stories ever became clear, but that’s no different than what happens when reading any book with a large cast of characters. There are a few who do stand out, and gradually the story led me to wonder why they are still there. We get an answer from one, a minister who ran from the gates of judgment, but others’ reasons are unclear for most of the book. But that’s ok. I knew enough to care.
Much of the book concerns itself with the ways we cling to life, our own lives and the lives of those we love. Some of the spirits are caught up in memories of people they’ve left behind. A few are even accompanied by spirits of those they know. The rules of how it all works is never made clear, but I don’t think it needs to be. The main idea is that life has value, but it is transitory. So each moment has value.
I’m interested in Saunders’s choice to use Lincoln to tell this story. It could be about any parent and child. I suppose the idea is that even the greatest among us are caught up in this struggle of life and death. The spirits in the graveyard represent many different walks of life. There are enslaved people, a minister, a pedophile, a scholar, a mother, and on and on. The child of a president is not immune to death, and a president is not protected from grief. There’s a moment in which the spirits speak to Lincoln in a way that may have changed history—I thought this was a little too much as it felt thrown in to raise the stakes. The main story here is a universal one, that cuts across time and status.