90 pages 3 hours read

Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Lincoln Highway, written by Amor Towles and published on October 5th, 2021, is a historical fiction novel chronicling 10 days in the summer of 1954. The Lincoln Highway is Towles’s third historical fiction novel, and like his two previous titles, A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility, it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. The Lincoln Highway was chosen as a best book of the year by NPR, Time Magazine, and The Washington Post, and selected by The New York Times as a Notable Book. Amor Towles attended Yale College where he obtained his undergraduate degree and holds a Master of Arts degree in English from Stanford University.

The Lincoln Highway is a fast paced and reflective adventure story centered on three young men from disparate backgrounds, whose incarceration together in a juvenile detention center brings them together on the outside where conflicting motives and moralities set them on a course for collision across the United States. Set over 10 days beginning on June 12, 1954 with the release of Emmett Watson from Salina Juvenile Detention Center, each of the ten sections of the novel constitutes the proceedings of a single day. The ten sections comprise multiple chapters, titled with the name of the character whose experience is the primary focus of that chapter. With the exception of the chapters belonging to Duchess and Sally, which are written in first person, all other chapters are written in third person limited perspective. The sections of the novel begin with the heading of TEN, and progress in descending order through to the novel’s conclusion.

This guide is based on the hardcover first edition of The Lincoln Highway, published in 2021 by Viking.

This novel includes the following subject matter and depictions: pervasive physical violence, threats of violence, manslaughter, attempted murder, racism, emotional abuse of children, incarceration and corporal punishment of minors, the financial and material exploitation of a person with a disability, the mention of the suicide of a minor character, and the thorough depiction of the suicide of a main character with a disability.

Plot Summary

On June 12, 1954, Emmett Watson is released from the Juvenile Detention Center at Salina in Kansas. The warden drives him back home, where he signs over the farm his recently deceased father has lost to the bank. Reuniting with his 8-year-old brother Billy, Emmett plans to head for Texas to apply his skills as a carpenter and slowly amass a gradually increasing number of properties to turn a profit and found his own business. Billy, who has found postcards from their mother indicating that she took the Lincoln Highway all the way to San Francisco, wants to follow her to the west coast, where he believes he and Emmett will find her.

Unbeknownst to Emmett, Duchess Hewett and Woolly Martin, two fellow inmates from Salina, have stowed away in the trunk of the Warden’s car and present themselves to Emmett with the proposition that Emmett drive them to upstate New York to steal a cache of money that is rightfully Woolly’s. Though Emmett wants no part of the plan, he agrees to drive the two to Omaha to catch a train to their destination. During an unprecedented stop in Lewis, Nebraska, where Duchess had spent some time at the local orphanage, Duchess steals Emmett’s car and along with it the sum of money Emmett’s father provided for his sons to start their new life. With the help of their friend and neighbor Sally, Emmett and Billy make their way to the train station, where they stow away on an eastbound boxcar headed for New York City. When Billy, left alone while Emmett searches for food, finds himself at the mercy of a vagabond thief who calls himself Pastor John, he narrowly escapes being robbed and thrown from the train. Through the heroics of a veteran named Ulysses Dixon, Pastor John is instead thrown from the train, and Ulysses accompanies the two Watson boys to New York, where he acts as their guide and bonds with Billy over the story of the Greek king Ulysses of antiquity.

Along their journey to New York to steal the money from Woolly’s family camp in the Adirondacks, Duchess stops to exact revenge on Warden Ackerly, the former superintendent of Salina whose racism and propensity for capital punishment make him a target for Duchess. Assaulting him and leaving him for dead, Duchess and Woolly proceed to New York with Emmett on their heels. While in New York, Woolly, who is neurodivergent and exhibits features of developmental disabilities as well as psychological disturbances, has the chance to visit with his sister Sarah when he and Duchess arrive at her house, and she asks them to stay.

Duchess hunts down his father’s former associate, Fitzy, to ascertain his father’s whereabouts, and finds a former inmate from Salina, Emmett’s close friend Townhouse. Duchess asks Townhouse to hit him to square away the debt Duchess believes he owes Townhouse. While in Harlem at Townhouse’s brownstone, Duchess gives away Emmett’s car. On Duchess’s trail, Emmett manages to find Fitzy himself and learns the truth about Duchess’s incarceration. Duchess’s father had framed him for the theft of a watch, allowing Duchess to be sent to Salina for a crime his father committed. Emmett begins to realize that the theft of the money from Woolly’s family camp is not the only item on Duchess’s agenda: Duchess also plans to exact revenge on his father.

When Emmett meets up with Townhouse, he is informed of the trouble that Duchess and Woolly have been in since Duchess stole Emmett’s car in Nebraska, and Townhouse arranges for Emmett’s car to be painted and improvements made to its performance so the members of law enforcement who are on Duchess’s trail and have linked the car to Duchess’s crimes will not give Emmett trouble on his way to California. When Emmett discovers that the envelope containing the money that his father left for him is not in the trunk of the car, he realizes that he needs to find Duchess to see it returned to him. Following Duchess to the circus on Townhouse’s tip, Emmett is drugged and left behind with the young women of the brothel operating on the second floor of the circus building. Duchess abandons Emmett a second time, taking Woolly and Billy with him. When Duchess becomes annoyed with Billy, he takes him to the Empire State Building to find the author of Billy’s favorite book, Professor Abacus Abernathe, who Duchess is convinced will not be there. When they do indeed find the author there and Billy shares the story of his journey, including the details of the remarkable life of Ulysses Dixon, Professor Abernathe is determined to meet Ulysses, so Duchess, Woolly, and Emmett bring Professor Abernathe to the itinerant camp where Ulysses is staying.

Woolly, Duchess, and Billy return to the home of Woolly’s sister Sarah, and the following day make plans to cook an extravagant dinner Duchess learned to make as a boy. Left at the brothel without the details pertinent to finding the home of Woolly’s sister, it takes Emmett a considerable amount of time to locate his brother, Duchess, and Woolly. Just as Emmett arrives, the sound of an engine backfiring reveals the arrival of Sally, who has driven all the way from Nebraska to check on Billy and Emmett, who failed to phone her at their mutually agreed upon time to ensure her that they were all right. Sarah and her husband Dennis return to find their home in the midst of a raucous dinner party, and Woolly, shamed and scolded by his brother-in-law, together with his friends, end their revelry and stay overnight. In the morning, Duchess and Woolly proceed north in Woolly’s Cadillac to retrieve the money Duchess has convinced Woolly he is owed. When they reach the Wolcott family camp, Duchess is shocked and amused to discover that Woolly does not know the combination to the safe. Duchess begins devising plans to break into the safe and Woolly tells him he is going to take a nap. Using the leftover medications he had been prescribed at Salina and the bottle of medication that he found at Sarah’s house, Woolly takes an intentional overdose. Duchess finds him in the hours before his death but decides not to disturb him or interrupt his own efforts to break into the safe, allowing Woolly to die by suicide without seeking any help for the person he considered his closest friend.

Ready to make their drive to the east coast, where Sally wants to find a fresh start for herself just as the Watson boys are planning to, Emmett, who has retrieved his newly painted car, cannot bring himself to leave New York without interfering with the plan to harm Duchess’s father. Emmett leaves Sally and Billy at a motel near the Wolcott camp, but Billy, certain his brother will need his help, stows away in the trunk of the Studebaker. When Emmett arrives and finds Woolly deceased and Duchess breaking into the safe, Emmett becomes furious, insisting that Duchess turn himself in so Emmett and his car will not be implicated in the assault on Ackerly. Duchess first attempts to persuade Emmett to help him, but when he realizes Emmett is set on bringing him to justice to answer for the assault and return to Salina, Duchess hits Emmett on the head with a rock and takes Billy, who has made his presence known, into the house, where he locks Emmett out. Emmett finally manages to break in, coming face to face with Duchess, who has taken one of the home’s rifles out of its cabinet and points it at Emmett. Billy steps out of the shadows, telling Emmett that Duchess poses no danger because he cannot read and therefore cannot know that according to the house rules, with the home being closed, the rifles have no firing pins left in them. Emmett grabs the rifle from Duchess and hits him with the butt, rendering him unconscious.

Billy has managed to do what Duchess could not, guessing the safe combination from his own knowledge of American history and his understanding of Woolly’s family’s connection to and appreciation for that era. When they find Woolly’s note, which leaves them each a third of his trust fund allowance, they remove the $150,000 in the safe. Emmett and Billy each take a portion for themselves. With Duchess’s portion, because Billy has made Emmett promise that he will not harm Duchess, Emmett devises a plan through which Duchess will inevitably become responsible for his own death. Just as Billy has deduced that Duchess could not read, he has also deduced that Duchess cannot swim.

As Emmett and Billy drive away from the Wolcott home with $100,000 between them and set out to begin their lives in California, Duchess comes to and finds himself adrift on the lake beside the house. The boat, which has a hole in its bow, is kept afloat by rocks at the stern as a ballast, but the paper bag containing Duchess’s share of the money is at the stern. As the money begins to blow away on the wind, in his determination not to let any more get away, Duchess leans too far forward in the boat, which takes on water and knocks Duchess into the lake, drowning him.