Friday, 22 September 2017

Lincoln in The Bardo by Catherine Hokin

 "Mary Lincoln's health had never been good and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother."

"A Mother's Trial: Mary Lincoln and the Civil War" by Jayne Coster

"Where was her boy? she kept asking. Where was he? Couldn't someone find him, bring him to her at once? Mustn't he yet be somewhere?"

Account of Sophie Lenox, maid in "Eyewitness to History: The Lincoln White House" ed. Stone Hilyard

 Willie Lincoln in 1861
There are books that play with structure that make you want to weep as you stumble around like an extra in the Emperor's New Clothes wondering what on earth the critics are raving about. And there are books that play with structure that make you want to sing - such a one is George Saunders' wonderful tour-de-force Booker shortlisted Lincoln in the Bardo. For those of you don't know (and I promise there will be no spoilers), the novel centres on the death in 1862 of Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of Abraham Lincoln, from typhoid fever.

Willie was not the only one of the Lincoln's sons to die - in fact only one of their four survived to adulthood - but he is widely attested as being his parent's favourite and contemporary accounts of his death are harrowing. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was Mary Lincoln's seamstress and friend (and is one of the voices woven through Bardo) wrote of the president’s grief. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child." There was a reception held at the White House during the last days of Willie's illness (for which many of Lincoln's detractors condemned him) and there are numerous accounts of Mrs Lincoln moving constantly to and fro between the ballroom and the child's bedroom where (as Keckley perhaps rather floridly puts it) "the rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sickroom in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits.” 

This was, of course, a personal tragedy in the midst of a public one. On the day Willie was interred, the casualty lists from the battle at Fort Donelson (a Union victory) were published and the scale of these was enormous: a thousand men dead on each side and three times that number wounded. One of the source voices in Bardo (First Lieutenant Daniel Brower, in 'These Battle Memories') describes the bodies as "Heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two, on top of three." 

 The crypt where Willie was first interred
The image of Lincoln mourning his son as he tries to hold the Union on a steady and increasingly bloody course is a poignant one. Willie was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, in a borrowed crypt, with the intention that his body would be eventually returned to Lincoln's home state of Illinois. On the night of the funeral, and after, Lincoln is known to have visited the crypt alone and this is where the novel starts. Young Willie is trapped in the bardo - a Tibetan Buddhist term which refers to a transitional state between the worlds of the living and the dead - where children, according to one of the novel's voices, Roger Bevins iii, are not meant to tarry. It seems that it is Lincoln's great love that is holding his son in this place filled with confused and wandering spirits who do not realise they are dead, actually making the boy's passing harder. It is these spirits, interwoven with contemporary voices, who act then as our narrators.

This is a book that feels like a play - in fact the audiobook runs to a cast of 166. Each spirit has their own voice, the whole novel is told in dialogue and often a character has only a line or two before we skip on to the next. Other than the spirits, we have verbatim contemporary accounts, such as the examples given at the top - the research here is centre-stage not sprinkled. It works, wonderfully - layer upon layer of lost, angry, confused, bitter and sometimes hilarious voices which reflect not only the horror of grief but also the chaos of human life and the ever-present civil war backdrop.

What exactly transpired in Lincoln's visits to the crypt, whether he did in fact have the coffin opened and hold his son's embalmed body, cannot be precisely verified. That a father could not bear to be parted from his son's remains is plausible enough and is really the only fact, beyond the death, we are invited to accept. That the boy's loss had a profound impact on his parents is, however, well-attested. In the following years both, and particularly Mary, created as apotheosis around Willie using phrases such as 'sainted' and 'too precious for this earth' to describe him. Mary remained in her room for weeks, not attending the funeral, requiring the service of a nurse for some months after and removed all her son's belongings from the White House. Keckly's account that “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. In one of her paroxysms of grief the President kindly bent over his wife, took her by the arm, and gently led her to a window. With a stately, solemn gesture, he pointed to the lunatic asylum. ‘Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.’” has other voices to support it.

There are as many ways to read the novel as there are voices in it. Erica Wagner, writing in the New Statesman calls it "a stunning portrait of a violently divided America" with a particular resonance for the world we live in. For writers and readers of historical fiction, it is a fascinating journey in what can be spun from the smallest nugget of historical fact. Oh and it's also wonderful - did I mention that?

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