A pilgrimage of love
This past summer, I spent a week geeking out in Washington DC with my 2 adolescent sons. I love all things history, and my boys have thankfully inherited this interest (although not at fanatical levels). Two of their “must sees” were Ford’s Theater and the Lincoln Memorial. This delighted me beyond all reason because Abraham Lincoln is a true American hero to me. I had visited both places before, but I enjoyed going back to share the experience with my sons. The park ranger at Ford’s Theater that day gave such a great presentation, even my ADHD son was mesmerized and still for almost the entire presentation. Powerful stuff.
So when I started listening to Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation on Audible, I immediately thought about my sons. I just knew they would love it. It is filled with interesting information about our assassinated presidents and their assassins, obviously including President Lincoln. And even though the subject matter is serious, Sarah’s style and her adventures are laugh-out-loud funny.
We were driving home from school, and I told them about this hilarious book I was listening to, and I thought they would love it. “It’s about assassinated presidents and their assassins.” My oldest looked at me like I had told him Christmas was cancelled. “That doesn’t sound funny at all, mom, “ he said in a horrified tone. I tried to explain, but he wasn’t having it. He doesn’t joke about assassinating Lincoln.
And neither does Vowell. She has a deep love and respect for this American president. The hilarity comes mainly from her experiences visiting any and all sites associated with Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and their assassins. This pilgrimage is a labor of love, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
The book dedicates a chapter to each of the assassinations. There is an excellent overview of the politics surrounding each president, the history of each president and his assassin, and the aftermath of the assassination. The section on Lincoln includes serious explorations on his legacy and how we remember him, the fate of the conspirators, and how his death affected our country. There is a heavy sense of “what if” he had lived to serve his second term. I found it even more thought provoking now with all the debate in 2015 over the government display of symbols of the confederacy.
There is also a huge dose of “what if” in the section regarding Garfield’s assassination. He had only been sworn in a short time before he was killed. It is impossible to know what kind of president he might have been. I admit that I was morbidly amused by the information about Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau. This dude was a delusional character, and the history of the religious sex cult he joined was an interesting sidebar.
But, the section on McKinley was the most thought-provoking for me. Sadly, I knew very little about his presidency and the politics of the time. Vowell expertly linked how U.S. actions during and after the Spanish-American War, led to problems we still face today. And the parallels between those actions and our current actions in the “war against terror” are troubling. McKinley’s killer was not flamboyant like Booth or almost comical like Guiteau.
Leon Czolgosz was a disillusioned and sad man, and there is a deep despair you can feel in this chapter.
I highly recommend this book. This is how history should be taught. Sarah Vowell makes history come alive and shows how it relates to the nation we are today and how we can learn (hopefully) from our history. I know some people may find her voice irritating, but I believe her performance (and that of her special guests) add immensely to the experience. Give the audio book a try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Book: Assassination Vacation
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio
Date Published: April 5, 2005
Narrator: Sarah Vowell (with special guests)
Source: Audible (my own collection)