I held off on writing a review of The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles until I had a chance to discuss it with other readers. Like his other novels – Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow – there is so much to say that this post will assuredly fall short. Like his other novels, I loved it. And, just as Rules and Gentleman are very different from each other, this one, too, is unlike either of its predecessors.
The Lincoln Highway Summary
Told over ten days, The Lincoln Highway follows four boys – Emmett, Billy, Duchess and Woolly – on the title road from Nebraska to New York. Emmett and Billy are brothers, 18 and 8, and have lost their homestead after the death of their father. Duchess and Woolly – also 18 – have taken advantage of Emmett’s release from a juvenile work farm and escaped by hiding out in the warden’s trunk.
Emmett and Billy plan to head west toward California, where Billy believes they’ll find the mother that abandoned the family years before. Duchess has other plans: cash in on the inheritance coming Woolly’s way – which resides in a safe at Woolly’s family lodge in upstate New York – and maybe settle a few of the scores that contributed to his landing on the work farm in the first place. Emmett has a car and some cash, so Duchess smooth talks the brothers into a bit of a detour.
The first rave review I heard on The Lincoln Highway mentioned how memorable and distinct its main characters were. This held true, but its not just the four boys that are memorable; so are the people they meet along the way including Pastor John, a train-riding hobo; Ulysses, a Black hero come to life; Abacus, a source of adventure in storytelling; Ma Belle, a woman of “entertainment”; and several more.
This is one of those books that, as I’m reading it, I wish I were back in the classroom as a teacher. There’s such literary richness in this book’s structure, characters and motifs that it begs to be discussed. And indeed, when my book club discussed The Lincoln Highway, it received a nearly perfect overall rating of 4.93.
I couldn’t help but start making notes as if I were a teacher. I pictured the four main characters in four quadrants where their position as foils could be easily sketched. I started jotting down reoccurring themes and how they are revealed in each of the characters. In listing the minor characters, you see similar parallels emerge. It is one that I look forward to reading again for the new details I’m sure I missed as well as the familiar scenes that I’ll enjoy experiencing again.
Spoiler Alert for The Lincoln Highway
If you haven’t read The Lincoln Highway, the skip on down to the section for Book Club Prompts. The ending is perhaps one of the more interesting elements for discussion: how do you interpret Emmett’s leaving Duchess in the boat? Many believe this is out of character for Emmett to leave Duchess to die. On the other hand, Emmett leaves Duchess to be the master of his own fate, and in the end, it is greed that kills Duchess. I personally believe the later, which Towles affirms in an interview I found online. But, I understand those who feel like it leaves a blemish on Emmett.
Book Club Prompts
As I mentioned, this book begs to be discussed, and you likely don’t need help with discussion starters. But if you do, here’s a few:
- Compare and contrast the main characters: Emmett and Duchess; Billy and Woolly
- What is each character’s inheritance? Discuss money gained / money lost. How is money important to each character?
- How are the roles of mothers different from those of fathers?
- How does the theme of what is “ethical” “moral” or “right” weave through the narrative as debts are settled? Specifically with Emmett and Duchess, how are their ethics similar and different?
- How does the structure of the book contribute to the narrative?
- Duchess is the only character of the three who is unfairly sent to the juvenile work farm. How does this contribute to your thoughts of him as a character?
- Duchess and Sally are the only two characters who speak in first person. How does this contribute to their characterization?
- The original working title for the book was “Unfinished Business.” Which is a better title?
- How does the setting of 1954 contribute to this novel?
- If you’ve read Towles’ other books, discuss how this one intersects with each of them?
- Who is your favorite character?
Towles interview by CBS Saturday Morning
Martha’s Vineyard Production of Towles Speaking with Q&A
Buzz Pick interview with Towles
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