The story behind ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

LINCOLN IN THE BARDOSeveral decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature.

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept–a kind of transitional zone says Saunders.

“We’re all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death,” he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. “Now is the time to live–knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”

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How the French Saved America

Give credit to France for the forming of our nation because without their help we might still be, as stereotypes go, eating crumpets, drinking tea and speaking with British accents.

That’s the focus of a new book by noted author Tom Shachtman in his latest book How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis Xvi, and The Success of a Revolution (St. Martin’s Press 2017; $27.99).

While many of us know about the Marquis de Lafayette whose help during the Revolutionary War was so vital that we’ve named cities after him–Lafayette, Indiana and Louisiana come quickly to mind. But the Marquis wasn’t the only Frenchman who risked his life to help America achieve its independence. Indeed, according to Shachtman in his extensively researched and wonderfully written book, almost ten percent of those who perished fighting for our cause were from France.

Those surviving include not only Lafayette but also Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, commander of the French fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake.  He and his men created a naval blockade of Yorktown thus allowing General George Washington and yet another Frenchman, Comte de Rochambeau, to defeat British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in what was a decisive battle. Another, Louis Duportail founded the Army Corps of Engineers.

Even Shachtman, who has written or co-authored more than thirty books as well as documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford and the Library of Congress, at first didn’t realize how much the French impacted America’s victory. He first became aware of France’s significance when writing another book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment and decided to pursue the subject. The assistance the French provided included, among a long list, money to pay our troops, weapons, safe harbor for privateers, troops, battlefield leadership and engineering expertise.

So why is France’s contribution not better known?

“We are too invested in our own myths to acknowledge how much we owe our freedom to France,” says Shachtman, noting our belief in our rugged individualism and self-sufficiency could also play a big part. “The war might not have been won at all, or not been won by 1783 if not for the French.”

Ifyougo:

What: Tom Shachtman has three talks and book signings in the Chicago area.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 6 pm

Where: The Newberry, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 312-255-3610; publicprograms@newberry.org

What: Learn & Lunch with Tom Shachtman

When: Wednesday, October 18 at noon

Where: University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 847-446-8880 to make a reservation

What: Tom Shachtman Reading & Signing

When: Thu. October 19 at 7pm

Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 293-2665