Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Published April 2005 by Simon and Schuster
Source: bought this one
From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue -- it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and -- the author's favorite -- historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.
Having heard Sarah Vowell on NPR many times, I no longer need to listen to her books on audiobook; I read her books in her voice in my head. You have to. Really. They are so much funnier when you do. Which is not to say they aren't funny to begin with because they are so much fun and so snarky. Which is a rare thing in a book about history.
Sarah Vowell does not drive. Which means her fans owe her friends and family a debt of gratitude. Here, she's dragged them all over to sites related to Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley and the men who killed them. I'd have been happy just to learn what I learned about Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and all of the amazing coincidences that intertwined the two families or the way Teddy Roosevelt rose to the presidency because of McKinley's death. But in both of those cases, it was more a matter of filling in what I already knew. With Garfield, though, it was nearly all new to me. It shouldn't surprise anyone, considering the times he lived in, to know that Garfield might well have survived his assassin had doctors not repeatedly thought it was a good idea to stick their dirty fingers into his wound.
No one has ever said that Sarah Vowell's books are boring. Nor has it ever been said of them that they are without bias. Assassination Vacation is no exception. Which was just fine with me; she and I largely agree politically. If, on the other hand, you tend to lean right, you may not enjoy her writing as much. Still, Vowell is more than willing to take shots at all politicians. Except Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln she loves.