The Lincoln Highway

by Amor Towles

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The Lincoln Highway Summary

The Lincoln Highway is a 2021 novel about a young man named Emmett Watson who travels from Nebraska to New York City in 1954.

  • Eighteen-year-old Emmett is released from a juvenile detention center and plans to go to San Francisco with his younger brother, eight-year-old Billy.
  • Two of Emmett’s fellow inmates from the detention center, Duchess and Woolly, use Emmett’s release as an opportunity to escape.
  • After Duchess and Woolly steal Emmett’s car, Emmett and Billy follow them to New York, where they have a series of adventures before leaving for California.


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Last Updated on May 2, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149

The Lincoln Highway, a suspenseful tale which questions the “balances” humans demand from life, is constructed using eight different points of view. The novel consists of ten sections, and a variety of characters are used within each section to depict the events from diverse perspectives.

The story opens in 1954, when Emmett Watson, the protagonist, is released early from his sentence at a juvenile detention facility where he has served time for contributing to the accidental death of another local boy. Emmett’s father has recently died, and the family farm in Morgen, Nebraska, is in foreclosure following years of his father’s poor business decisions. Since Emmett’s mother left the family many years before these conflicts, there is no one else to care for Billy, Emmett’s eight-year-old brother. Emmett is granted leniency because of his challenging family circumstances, which is a particular testament to his honorable character.

After being dropped off at the family farm, Emmett is almost immediately asked to sign over the farm to the bank. He does so willingly, eager to take Billy and begin their life together in an altogether different environment. He soon discovers, however, that two fellow inmates, Duchess and Woolly, hitched a ride with the unsuspecting warden by hiding in his trunk; they ask Emmett to join them on an adventure to New York, where they hope to claim Woolly’s inheritance of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars (approximately $1.6 million in today’s market).

Although Emmett declines the offer to join them and instead plans to drop them off on his way out of town with Billy, Duchess steals Emmett’s car, stranding him in an unfamiliar town. Emmett realizes that they are surely headed for New York as Duchess planned and that he must go there himself to reclaim his car.

Emmett and Billy are in a particular bind because all of Emmett’s money is still in the stolen car. They are therefore forced to hitch a ride on a train in order to reach New York as quickly as possible. Billy, who is convinced that their mother is waiting for them in San Francisco, wants to reach the city by the Fourth of July because he believes she will be in attendance at the fireworks display there.

Aboard the train, Emmett temporarily leaves Billy alone for a while; Emmett wants to locate some food and scampers across the top of the cars until he spots leftovers. While he is gone, Billy is confronted by a vile man who calls himself a pastor and who tries to steal Billy’s coin collection. Billy is rescued by a man named Ulysses, who throws the thief from the train and listens intently as Billy shares the story of the Great Ulysses from his book about heroes and adventurers. Ulysses bonds with Billy through this tale of loss and redemption and then scolds Emmett upon his return for leaving the child alone in such a dangerous place. Serving as a guide and protector, he takes the brothers to a camp when they reach New York and offers them nourishment and rest.

Woolly visits the home of his older sister Sarah, the closest thing to a true place of residence that he has. She has begun converting his room into a nursery for the baby she is expecting, and Woolly doesn’t begrudge this decision. He later meets her at FAO Schwarz, a favorite spot from their childhoods, and purchases a huge stuffed animal for Sarah’s baby. The light mood continues when Sarah agrees to have tea with her brother “for old time’s sake.”

Emmett tracks down Duchess and Woolly,...

(This entire section contains 1149 words.)

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and after a bit of a delay at the circus, the entire group convenes for a special dinner at the home of Woolly’s sister. Sarah and her husband are out of town, and Duchess acts as chef, going to great lengths to prepare an extraordinary meal. The group is unexpectedly joined by Sally, who was Emmett’s neighbor in Morgen and who took care of Billy following the death of Mr. Watson. Concerned for the well-being of her former neighbors, she is relieved that they are safe but is frustrated that Emmett has failed to contact her as planned.

The group’s genial mood is shattered when Sarah and her husband, Dennis, unexpectedly arrive home. Dennis is shocked that the group has helped themselves to his wine; meanwhile, Sarah generously offers each guest a comfortable place to sleep.

The next day, Duchess and Woolly depart for the home of Woolly’s great-grandfather, which has long served as a family gathering spot for Fourth of July festivities. They plan to claim the one hundred and fifty thousand dollars hidden in his great-grandfather’s safe. Emmett, Billy, and Sally initially prepare for their journey to California, but after Emmett becomes convinced that Duchess has inflicted harm on numerous people, he decides to postpone the journey. Instead, Emmett wants to bring Duchess to justice.

When Emmett arrives at the house, he discovers Woolly’s body and a pill bottle which was prescribed to Woolly’s sister. After locating Duchess, Emmett questions whether he knows about Woolly’s demise. Instead of displaying any sense of grief for the loss of his friend, Duchess steadfastly works to open the safe containing the money. The situation becomes more complicated when Billy unexpectedly arrives; Duchess and Woolly’s journey taught him that the trunk of a car provides an excellent means of undercover transport.

Determined to avoid legal repercussions and to claim his portion of Woolly’s inheritance, Duchess aims a rifle at Emmett’s chest. Billy provides just the distraction Emmett needs in order to snatch the gun and hit Duchess with it. As Duchess lays unconscious, Emmett and Billy read Woolly’s suicide note. He bequeathed his inheritance to his three friends—Duchess, Emmett, and Billy—to be divided evenly.

Emmett and Billy are initially torn about what to do. Eventually they decide to take their share of Woolly’s money, convinced he wanted them to have it, to give them a substantial start toward their new life in California. They debate what to do with Duchess and finally leave him with his share of the money in a small boat with no oars in the middle of a lake, knowing that he cannot swim.

When Duchess awakes, he finds that every movement he makes inside the boat causes it to leak water. When the wind begins to blow the money out of the boat and into the water, Duchess makes a desperate attempt to save the remainder of his newfound inheritance. He thus topples into the water and quickly begins to sink. As Duchess’s life ends, he imagines that he is once again surrounded by the people who accompanied him on his final adventure, and he bows to each of them.


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