Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Two decades ago, my father was just getting into Civil War reenacting. When he invited me to join him at one back then I said yes. It was a great time of father/son bonding. Fast forward to earlier this month, he invited me back to the same event. It was a six-and-a-half-hour drive from my home. One of the books I listened while driving was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

The Lincoln of the title is actually Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. The bardo is a sort of purgatory on earth of souls who are not ready to move on yet. After Willie dies, he isn’t ready to move on and teams up with other souls who also don’t realize they are dead in an effort to stay and try to get back to his father. Those other souls, throughout the story, do their best to support and help Willie. The story is very moving and sad. It explores death in a unique way. And it is an incredible portrait of a father’s love for his son.

It uses an unusual storytelling method. Many different character help tell the story from their perspectives. Also, may chapters start with quotes from nonfiction that describe the historical events that lay the foundation for the story. I struggled with the format at first, but I really think it works, especially as an audiobook. I highly recommend that format.

My rating: 4/5

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A man at the center of three large trees stares down into his open, empty hands.

For our July historical fiction book, my book club selected to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I had previously read two books by the same author—The Grapes of Wrath in high school and Of Mice and Men when my daughter was in high school. While I liked both of those books, if it wasn’t for my book club, I’m not sure I would ever have read East of Eden. I am so glad I read it as it is now one of my favorite books of all time.

The book was written by Steinbeck for his sons. He wanted them to know about his family and the Salinas valley in California where he grew up. Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, is a close friend of the main character in the novel, Adam Trask. The book tells the story of Adam and his two sons, Caleb and Aron. It is often described as a modern retelling of Cain and Abel. I think it is more accurate to say that it explores the same themes as the story of those two brothers. And those themes are universally human—good, evil, justice, family, duty, responsibility. In short, the human condition.

And that is why this book is one of my favorites. I generally read a lot of science fiction. My favorite kind of sci fi is stories that take what is happening today and push it into the near future, exploring how the changes affect people and how they deal with what it means to be human. This book does the same thing, but instead of looking forward into the future, it looks back into the past. There are a lot of really human characters with lots of flaws. The author treats them all with respect. While the first chapter or two are a little slow, it grabbed me right after that and wouldn’t let go. I can see why Steinbeck considered this his master work.

My rating: 5/5

Struggling with History

Kindred book cover

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I devoured this book. It is a historical novel about a woman living in 1979 who keeps being yanked back to an antebellum Maryland plantation worked by enslaved people. Why? It’s not clear, but a member of the plantation family turns out to be one of the woman’s ancestors. The story explores how a twentieth-century black woman would fare on a slave plantation.

That on its own is an interesting premise for a story, but with Butler’s storytelling and imagination it is so much more. It explores slavery and humanizes both the enslaved and the enslavers while still exposing the absolute inhumanity of slavery itself. Her husband is white and is with her on one trip to the past. This allows Butler to explore not only the obvious injustice and brutality suffered by those enslaved, but also the effect on the enslavers of growing up in a culture and family that endorse such a violent and degrading economic system.

And now I have made the book seem depressing, and at times it is. But the best word to describe this work is human. It is the story of everyday people trying to live their lives as they struggle with the lived reality that was slavery. It honestly made me think in ways I had never considered. It exposed the ugliness and cruelty of slavery as well as how those involved did their best to simply live their lives. Most controversial issues get oversimplified. Not in this book. Butler stares directly at the problem, making the reader experience it and, hopefully, start to come to terms with what many call America’s original sin. It’s a book every American needs to and should read.