21 September 2015

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

Posted by Callan Bentley

vowell Time for my book report: This week, I read (well, listened to) a fun history of the assassination of three American presidents. Yes, it’s simultaneously about political murder and is a fun read (well, listen). This is because of the author’s ideal mix of snark, intelligence, and obsession with the three stories discussed herein: the assassination of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. She doesn’t get into Kennedy’s assassination – perhaps because we see Kennedy as “of a different era” than the other three men – a man of relatively recent history, as compared to relatively distant history. Or perhaps it’s because Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, wasn’t in Dallas when Kennedy was shot – and that doesn’t fit the pattern of the other three. One of the fascinating things I learned by reading (listening to) this book is that Robert Lincoln was a bit of a hex, an ‘angel of death’ when it comes to presidential assassinations: he was present at each of the other murders. Vowell also reveals crazy tangential connections between these historical events and everyday features of our lives – everything from “House of Cards” type political intrigue and the unlikely ascension of Teddy Roosevelt, to unionization and Oneida teapots. I first became familiar with Vowell’s work when a decade ago I listened each week to the public radio program “This American Life,” where she made occasional reports – quirky audio essays that are fully in keeping with the way she writes in her books. In Assassination Vacation, she travels to many spots up and down the eastern part of the United States, from upstate New York to the Dry Tortugas in Florida, a kind of pilgrimage that prompts reflection on the people who made decisions that altered the course of history. She describes these peregrinations with a unique voice, and I mean that literally – you will be familiar with it if you have seen the excellent movie The Incredibles, for it is Sarah Vowell who voices the teen-aged daughter Violet. As I get older, I find myself drawn more and more to human history, in a way I never was as a teenager or college student. The twists and turns of past events have wrought the landscape in which we now live, and it’s increasingly interesting to me to learn why things are the way they are, and the pivot points on which the social juggernaut has turned. Vowell’s book is an excellent, enlightening, entertaining examination of presidential assassination, but in exploring the antecedents and consequences of each plot, she has enlightened me to a rich and detailed portrait of the America of more than a century ago. Recommended.