Written by Sarah Vowell
Published by Simon & Schuster
When we watched the features on the Incredibles DVD, we were fascinated by Sarah Vowell (the voice of Violet, the sullen super-teenager) and her video essay. In it, she talks about her journey to becoming a voice for an animated character, and shows off her work space. Among other things, she showed off a hair belonging to John Brown as well as her Lincoln figurines playing with a Violet action figure. It turns out that she’s also a contributor to This American Life on NPR. So when I had the chance to read the very book mentioned on the DVD, I was excited to see what other wacky things she had to share over her amusing fascination with historical figures.
Assassination Vacation is basically an account of Vowell’s travels to various sites around the country that are in some way important to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. In addition to a plethora of facts and interesting anecdotes about the events surrounding each assassination, Vowell also adds almost as many tidbits about her own journey and the people she meets, as well as those brave souls that travelled with her. Most Americans know a bit about Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre at the hand of John Wilkes Booth, but the details that Vowell adds to the barebones facts we all learned in U.S. History really bring the events to life.
For example, Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s son, was supposed to attend the play where Lincoln was shot, but didn’t make it–some people theorize that Booth’s shot would have been blocked if Robert had been in the other seat in the box, but instead he was present at Lincoln’s deathbed. He witnessed the shooting of Garfield, and was also present in the same city as McKinley when he was shot, making him appear like a “presidential angel of death.” Equally noteworthy is that Garfield’s killer, Guiteau, had been a member of the free-love Oneida community (but left because he was so annoying that no one actually wanted to sleep with him), and later tried to sue the group. And yes, the flatware company used to be a utopian society. For every place that Vowell visits (from Florida to Alaska), there is a backstory that is much more fascinating than the primary event that took place there (from a fight over who should have a conspirator’s skull to insulting totem-pole caricatures).
The historical stories behind the assassinations are captivating, but the stories about the trips themselves are equally amusing. While tracking Booth’s escape route after he shot Lincoln, Vowell and her friend come to the conclusion that Dr. Mudd, the man who patched up Booth’s broken leg, must have been a conspirator in the attack. Their reasoning stems from the fact that because his house is so hard to find that there’s no way Booth could have stumbled upon it by chance. My favorite of Vowell’s travelling companions, however, is her three-year old nephew, Owen, who exclaims, “This is a nice Halloween park!” at a cemetery he visits with his aunt. This child also knows the words “crypt” and “decapitated.” I want to meet Owen.
In addition to a lot of interestingly presented history and travel stories, Vowell also makes an effort to relate the political events that surrounded the assassinations with political issues today, such as comparing McKinley’s attempts to liberate Cuba and the Phillipines to the current war in Iraq. While her views are indeed biased, she makes no attempt to make them seem otherwise, which I really appreciate. Whether or not you agree with her political views, she does a good job of relating past and present events in a believable way, without stretching similarities too much.
My only caveat about the book is that she does tend to jump around without warning. The segues are there, but sometimes the subject shift is so sudden that you have to stop and look for them. The last chapter was a little random–it’s mostly about the Lincoln memorial and other events surrounding his death, so I didn’t understand why it wasn’t included with the first chapter, which covered Lincoln. If she was looking to wrap up the book neatly with the last chapter, it didn’t quite work.
All in all, though, the book is an entertaining read. Plus, you’ll actually learn something about these three assassinations and be able to wow your friends with obscure insights about President Garfield and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.