Lincoln In The Bardo Book Review



In brief, describe the plot of Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo tells two separate stories: the story of young Willie Lincoln and his father, Abraham; and the story of a community of ghosts bound to live inside a Washington cemetery, and both cross paths throughout the entire book, which takes place over a single day. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is a fascinating story that winds its way through death, life, love, and freedom. It also winds it’s way through characters- the story is narrated by three main characters who bounce thoughts off of each other, while others interject thoughts along the way. 

In George Saunder’s version of life (and death, for that matter), a community of ghosts co-exists with humans, though restricted to the cemetery and forced to hide during the daylight. You might think these ghosts have superpowers, though- apart from the usual pass through objects, fly through air fanfare, these ghosts can insert themselves into humans (a very particular one, in this case), listen to their thoughts, and even convince them of acting a certain way by influencing their thoughts. 

But no, this isn’t a science fiction novel (not the way I see it). Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the Civil War, and even interjects pieces of writing from the actual time period (from real life).

All the while struggling with commanding the Union Army, Abraham Lincoln must suffer through the premature death of his son, Willie. Passing away from fever at the age of 12, Willie’s death breaks the heart of Abe- and brings thoughts of doubt and self- regret. There was no hope anymore for Lincoln.

*By the way- in this review, I’m referring to Willie Lincoln as Willie and Abraham Lincoln as Lincoln.

As Willie is laid to rest at the cemetery, his new form (as a ghost) rises from his human body and is greeted by other ghosts, whom I’ll name later. This is nothing but usual. Well, that is, until Willie doesn’t, er, move on. His soul remains in the cemetery- and that shouldn’t be happening. 

In Lincoln in the Bardo, you’ll read about why this happened, how (and why) other ghosts also suffered similar fates, all the while being sucked into a constantly developing plot. As Lincoln struggles with the loss of his son, he revisits the cemetery late at night to visit Willie one last time. From there, a heartwarming story begins.

You’ll love reading about the unbreakable connection between Lincoln and Willie, and how they stayed with each other (if not physically) until the very last moment. Though Willie is constantly bombarded with hoards of ghosts so curious about the miracle that had occurred, three ghosts (the main characters) step through and work to help Willie accept this unfortunate turn of events and reconnect him with his father for a few last ‘words’, so that Willie would move on as he was supposed to (for one can only consume to the matterlightbooming phenomenon when one is mentally prepared, in most cases). 

These ghosts, who had never seen so much excitement in their (after)lives, are willing to team up together to convince Lincoln to revisit the cemetery, while allowing for Willie to re-enter his sick-form (you’ll understand what that means once you read the book) and hear his fathers last words to him. 

By doing this, they not only help Willie reconnect with his father, but they allow for the ghost community to begin to see the beauty in each other that was left behind, recognize the lives they once had, accept their fate and have hope in themselves, and realize, for once in their lives, that they. are. actually. dead.

I’ll leave you with that. But there’s so much more to it- you’ll want to read Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel by George Saunders.

Read on for more of my review, where I cover the characters, issues, my thoughts, and more on one of my favorite reads so far.

Describe the main characters in Lincoln in the Bardo.

As I mentioned earlier, Willie Lincoln (whom this story centers around) is greeted at the cemetery by three ghosts: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. 

They (along with everyone else within the cemetery) are ghosts who, in their previous lives, had committed some misdoing that caused them to end up, in one way or another, in the cemetery where their bodies lay. Instead of moving on, they were left to cope with their issues, with an understanding that they were only sick, and not dead. 

That is, except for the Reverend. The first two ghosts, respectively, are simply naive. If you were confused about what I wrote in the first section above, these two (Hans and Roger) simply chose to ignore that they were dead, instead choosing to wholeheartedly believe that they were only sick (thus the names sick-box and sick-form). 

Part of the reason for this is that they both suffered accidental deaths- one was hit by a wooden beam, for example. The Reverend, however, was fully aware of his death- he accepted his passing and moved onto another world- one where he was greeted by a missionary of Christ. While others were praised on how they lived their lives and were welcomed into some sort of heaven. The Reverend, however… nah, I won’t spoil that.

Like many other books, you come to really love these characters. For me, I came to really respect the Reverend, after hearing his story. He passed away peacefully, accepting and aware of himself. But I was so glad that, later in the story as the ghosts regained memories and thoughts of their previous lives, they realized that they had something to offer and motivated them to move on, accept their previous lives, and have hope. And when Roger and Hans joined together to convince Lincoln to stay with Willie, they both saw the beauty in each other, understood what they had left behind, and became ever more connected in that hopeless place.

While some characters were entirely fictional, and others were (evidently) pulled from real life, Lincoln in the Bardo was exceptional at characterization and creating personalities, backstories, and emotions.

What were some real-life issues that Lincoln in the Bardo deals with?

Lincoln in the Bardo navigates through topics among the likes of death, love, mortality, sexuality, acceptance, failure, hope, forgiveness, suffering, among others.

As far as age range, how would you rate Lincoln in the Bardo?

Adult / Mature teen. This is my personal rating, but I base it off of consistent use of foul language, along with some paragraphs with mature content. Also, the book is written in a particular way with unfamiliar terms (some native to the time period) that might require more advanced reading skills to fully understand.

If you could choose one word to describe Lincoln in the Bardo, what would it be?

Mortality. It’s pretty obvious why.

Anything extra about Lincoln in the Bardo that should be known?

Yes- and it’s one of my favorite things about Lincoln in the Bardo. I’ve never seen this style of writing before, but every few chapters, instead of the characters telling the story, a part of the story is told through quotes from real-life writing. Actually, now that I think about it, Lincoln’s side of the story is told with this, and it’s really neat. In this way, George Saunders hands you with several opinionated quotes that go hand-in-hand that allow for the reader to feel exactly how the author wants them to. 

Does Lincoln in the Bardo make your list of favorite books?

Absolutely, and it just might be my favorite. I loved the connection between characters, the way the story was written, the series of events that tells a heartwarming story yet deals with so many prevalent issues, and the basis on which the story is told (Abraham Lincoln and his son, Willie).

You should read it too.


As I was reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I jotted down about 1500 words of notes, and I’ll include a few below. There were several parts of the story that I want to highlight in this book review, and while I won’t include questions about the book that I had along the way that were later answered, here they are:

  • Unlike many books, the way the book was written and the terms that were used may not have allowed me to understand the book perfectly, but I interpreted it in my own way- a way that made sense to me and unlike with many other books, I was okay with that. I was able to get just as much enjoyment and thought from the book as, per se, a more advanced reader who truly understood the entirety of the text. I came up with my own explanations as for process of events, why some things were happening, why someone thought something, why that person (or ghost) was feeling a certain way.As far as what the characters looked like, the way they spoke, their personalities and inner workings; I could interpret them well- but not necessarily how the author pictured them. Again, for this, I was fully okay with that.
  • On page 187, we learn a lot about the Reverend, and realize that most of these people didn’t realize who they really were, unlike him. I pictured these characters very different after this, for they believed they were still alive. I can now clearly picture the Reverend- and gained a bit of respect for him as a character.
  • Used word matterlightbooming phenomenon several times- I realize now, this was the author’s perspective on how death actually happened, while characters didn’t realize what was happening.
  • George Saunders picture of death seems as authentic as death can be- I could feel it, understand the emotions, feel something pulling at my own heart. 
  • George gave death a feeling of peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and praise, while in the reverends case, it was menacing.
  • The face described of Lincoln- of despair, expressive, sunken eyes, shadow. I could picture this (and believe it) so easily.
  • As part of my interpretations, I realized that being in the cemetery, ghosts were only caught in a passageway. Stuck between both ‘lives’. And now that the word naive was mentioned by Reverend, (in reference to acknowledging death) when others tried to speak with Willie, I could definitely see that trait in each character.
  • I didn’t realize this until later on into the story, but many of the ghosts were slaves- time period plays a role in story- and these characters described the terrible ways in which they were treated. Also, I realized that many of these ghosts had connections- the Barons and their friends all met after being thrown into a cart together, after they died, for example.
  • More thoughts: Part of the story showed hope- how even the ghosts who were considered useless and unworthy could come together to help reunite Lincoln and Willie. It was powerful.Also- when they joined together, they saw beauty in everyone, understood what they had forgotten, and became ever more connected in that hopeless place.For those who were trapped in the helpless place, fighting against ‘moving on’ to the next stage, Willie was the sun peeking through the clouds on a stormy day. 

    Until, of course, he revealed to everyone that they were dead.

    But until that point, everyone had worked so hard to try and insert themselves into Lincoln, understand and convince Lincoln, and give the boy a chance to speak with his father one last time.

  • From what I understand, their existence in the second place was only through endurance- once they recognized that they were dead, they had no trouble moving on. And then, after everyone was helping Willie resist going on, fighting the tendrils (I thought of them as vines trying to force Willie to move on) that constantly trapped him in hopes of him giving up- (SPOILER) he willingly went.
  • And I also found numerous themes present in Lincoln in the Bardo- 
    • The actual departing of Willie left Lincoln with a desire to bring the world back to its good sense- to end suffering, to acknowledge that anyone killed during the Civil War was dear to someone else- just as Willie was, to him.
    • As page 308 explains, one can come from a place as low as Lincoln was at that point, and rise up and become strong again, acknowledge our suffering, and in his case, win the Civil War. 
  • As the book quotes, it was important for Lincoln, and others in the cemetery, to restore themselves to themselves. I found these few pages very powerful and meaningful. 
  • As far as the end of the book, I found it interesting. After (SPOILERS) Vollman and Bevins had ‘moved on’, I expected them to finish the story speaking, and speaking about being content in the next place. But alas, the book ends with a man named Thomas Havens embodying the soul of Mr. Lincoln. As it sounds, he would remain in Lincoln’s body for the rest of his life. I do wonder if he was part of the driving force that helped Lincoln win the Civil War and recover from Willie’s death. 

Either way, Lincoln in the Bardo was inspiring. I learned a lot about life from reading- and without hesitation I’d recommend this book.

Thank you.