Using an array of historical accounts of the Lincolns’ reception, Saunders describes the lavish party, which brimmed with “exotic flowers” displayed in rooms with “multitiered chandeliers” and “carpets of sea-foam green.” “Every nation, race, rank, age, height, breadth, voice-pitch, hairstyle, posture, and fragrance seemed presence,” writes one historian. One attendee describes in a private letter the juxtaposition between this opulence and the national situation, noting: “This, it occurred to me, this was the undisciplined human community that, fired by its dull collective wit, now drove the armed nation towards it knew-not-what sort of epic martial cataclysm: a massive flailing organism with all the rectitude and foresight of an untrained puppy.” Another attendee adds, “The war was less than a year old. We did not yet know what it was.”
Once again, Saunders situates the novel by bringing to light the political circumstances influencing the president and his citizens. Although people criticize Lincoln for hosting such an extravagant party in trying times—calling him and his guests an “undisciplined community”—it’s worth noting that it makes perfect sense for the president to throw a soirée that would bring people together. Indeed, individuals from different “nations,” “races,” and “ranks” unite during this evening, a perfect representation of the kind of unity Lincoln strives to attain on a larger scale in the Civil War.
Assembling a vivid image of the Lincolns’ reception, the historical excerpts speak of a wonderfully constructed “pagoda” of sweets and an array of exquisite foods. “Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband,” reads one historical account. “They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all.”
By juxtaposing the merriment of the presidential reception with Willie’s death, Saunders heightens the painful fear Abraham and Mary Lincoln feel in this moment. Despite how terrified they are of losing Willie, they must smile “mechanically” for the good of the party, since it’s up to them to bring these people together even in trying times. In turn, Saunders presents yet another small-scale representation of the national situation, as Lincoln must maintain the illusion of strength during the war even when things are going badly.