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The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

This is a spoiler-filled discussion about the ending to The Lincoln Highway. If you haven’t read the novel yet, wait to visit this post until after you finished it.

Welcome to the discussion about The Lincoln Highway! If you’re new to Book Club Chat, I write spoiler-free reviews and spoiler-filled book club questions for each novel I read. But lately, I’ve noticed some books deserve a third article—one dedicated to shocking endings. So please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the end of the article.

The Lincoln Highway is a coming-of-age tale about the transition from teenager to adulthood. Each of the main characters are at a crossroads of sorts and in a way, the Lincoln Highway serves as a getaway from their current, somewhat bleak situation.

Particularly, Emmett and Billy. This is their chance to leave behind Nebraska and its bad memories and try out California. While Billy hopes they can find their mother in San Fransisco (even though she abandoned the family), Emmett believes they can get a fresh start with fixing and then selling houses (the original house flippers).

But Duchess made a mess of everything. Once he steals Emmett’s car and heads up to New York, it completely delays Emmett’s and Billy’s plans.

From there, we follow Emmett and Billy’s journey to regain the car and they meet an interesting cast of characters along the way.

The Ending

Remember, this is spoilers, spoilers, spoilers from here on out! So don’t read this unless you’ve finished the book. Seriously!

Up until about the last 60 pages or so, the story is fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale with vivid imagery of the time period and lots of pondering about the past and what’s next. So the shift in tone during the climax to the ending was pretty shocking.

Emmett finds Woolly dead in his bed from a suicide. He’s distraught but when he sees Duchess, all Duchess cares about his trying to get Woolly’s inheritance that is locked away. This horrifies Emmett and he’s determined for Duchess to finally go to the police to own up to his crimes and that’s when the two get into a fight. Eventually, Emmett knocks out Duchess.

It turns out Woolly did leave each of the friends his money. So the brothers take their share of the money and plan to finally go to California.

But Emmett is concerned that Duchess will try and find them. So he decides to put an unconscious Duchess on a boat with his own share of the money. The boat contains a hole and Emmett stacks stones in order to stop the boat from flooding. However, once Duchess is awake and the money begins to blow away, Duchess shifts the boat to try and get it—causing it to sink and since Duchess can’t swim, he drowns.

We apparently see a flash before Duchess dies that shows the brothers in California, Woolly alive, Sally with a child and Sister Sarah. Clearly this doesn’t represent the future since Woolly is alive but maybe that flash was simply Duchess’ wishes. I’m not sure—what do you think about that scene?

Key Events

While the ending is shocking, there are hints of something more sinister going on earlier in the novel—Duchess’ random act of violence against the taunting cowboy in Morgen and also to Ackerly, the former warren of the juvenile camp. Duchess tries to justify both but it’s undeniable that those were unprovoked actions and the fact he doesn’t see that is pretty disturbing in itself.

And with Emmett, while he did not kill the bully on purpose back in Morgen, it does sound like he has anger issues and only Billy can get him to calm down. Although, who wouldn’t be absolutely furious with Duchess and his behavior, right?

But let’s talk over several key events. First, was this Woolly’s plan all along—to commit suicide and leave his friends his inheritance? I think so. This is why his interactions with his sister seemed to have a farewell component to it. Very sad and tragic.

I have seen people wonder if Duchess had a hand in Woolly’s death—such as ensuring Woolly would get his sister’s medicine bottle (which I don’t think we ever got the name of). So, maybe he didn’t actually kill Woolly but he also didn’t help to prevent the overdose. I think it’s left vague on purpose.

The second event I want to discuss is the fact that Duchess makes it seem like this trip is an effort to get revenge at his father for framing him and sending him to the work camp. But he never does come into contact with his father—although it seems like he does try. I was disappointed they never had an interaction and that really didn’t go anywhere.

Reading the story from Duchess’ first-person perspective caused the reader to try to sympathize with him but soon it became apparent that not only was he a liar but he’s also a dangerous person. While Duchess probably thought of himself as a hero, he was the villain, in the end. I don’t feel he was misunderstood—I believe his actions were loud and clear.

Emmett’s Motivations

And so let’s talk about the big twist—Emmett leaving Duchess in the boat. I’ve reread it a couple times and I don’t believe Emmett purposely killed Duchess. I know some feel that way but I just don’t think that was the author’s intention. I feel Emmett was truly concerned that Duchess would find him and Billy and continue to cause havoc so he had to delay Duchess.

But at the same time, I feel that Emmett didn’t care what happened to Duchess. He knows that Duchess can’t swim and he did just enough to provide some safety but it was up to Duchess to ensure that he could get back to shore. Potentially, Emmett laid the groundwork for Duchess to have to choose between the money or survival. This line Emmett thinks before driving away is significant:

“Having come fifteen hundred miles in the wrong direction, on the verge of traveling three thousand more, Emmett believed that the power within him was new in nature, that no one but he could know what he was capable of, and he only has just begun to know it himself.”

How I take this is after Emmett murdered that bully, he really worked to contain his anger but Duchess’ behavior left him no choice. If Emmett didn’t stop Duchess, Emmett believes that Duchess would again get in the way of their plans. So Emmett will not get pushed around any longer and is willing to do whatever it takes to get him and Billy to safety. So again, while I don’t think Emmett set out to murder Duchess, I also believe he didn’t care what happened to him—he just didn’t want to deal with his toxic behavior any longer.

Tell Me Your Thoughts

This is how I interpreted The Lincoln Highway ending. Agree, disagree and/or have other ideas completely? Be sure to tell me your thoughts below!




Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

Oh my God, thank you for this review. I just finished reading The Lincoln Highway and the ending completely deflated me. Your review is 100% how I feel. I went back to re-read what Emmet did while Duchess was knocked out; it never said he put him on the boat, we find this out in the next chapter where it’s clear that he did put Duchess on the boat WITH ROCKS! I must admit I was left disappointed by Emmet, but you are right to say that Emmet didn’t care much for Duchess and with good reason. One thing I found comfort in was that Emmet did leave Duchess his share of the money with him on the boat; I figured if his intention was to kill him, he would have taken the money, maybe. Thank you for this review. I can now go to bed at ease after reading it.


Sunday 2nd of October 2022

I'm with you Heather. Unsatisfactory, rushed ending. The over arching thread of story, finding mother, is never answered. So many other threads introduced also never answered. Rather implausible ending. I read this book after gentleman in Moscow. Much better book. A satisfactory ending even though subtle, it is there. Also in Lincoln Highway I didn't think the level of swearing and blasphemy was necessary for the authenticity of the characters. I bought this book after enjoying the other one. Now i will not be buying another because I will not know what I will be getting

Susan fischer

Saturday 24th of September 2022

I’m not sure what happened to Emmet and Billy’s share of the money at the end of the book. It said that Emmet put their share of the money in the trunk of the Cadillac? So was that Emmet and Billy’s Money or Duchess’s money in the Cadillac?


Tuesday 13th of September 2022

I think "periphery" was the key word in the end. Duchess had one final challenge to look around and determine a course that included something besides what was right in front of him. Namely, the money being in Duchess's direct line of sight, it was a another thing to grab, plowing forward, yet again, without thinking. Would Duchess ignore the periphery? Would he again push a thoughtful approach out of his line of sight, grab the money, and then attempt to move forward to safety? Or, would Duchess finally take in a fuller picture / vision, make a plan for safety, and then have his life AND the money? Well, we know the answer. Blub blub blub; down goes Duchess -- quite a sad demise -- and down goes the boat, and afloat goes the money. Duchess has neither his money nor his life.

Now, what I really see is a really sad story all the way around. Poor and uneducated, cast aside at every turn, Duchess is left snatching and grabbing, trying to make his way in life. Given extra care, with the material world at his fingertips, education galore, Wooly seeing no place in life for him, snatched one thing, and that was his own life.

Perhaps Proverbs 22:2 says it best: "The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all." What trouble led tragic Duchess and sad Wooly to begin together, death ensured they would stay together.

Sad. Having worked with teens for over 20 years, I've seen the young folks on these pages many times.


Saturday 10th of September 2022

I really don’t see Emmett as having murdered the bully. He just punched him and he fell backwards and hit his head on a rock. I couldn’t remember what the last 3 rules for closing up the house were, so I couldn’t understand how Billy knew Duchesse’s rifle wasn’t loaded. (Audiobook)