Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation. I've seen Sarah Vowell on the Daily Show, and her incredibly subtle, dry sense of humor practically forces you to read her books.
This is about three presidential assassinations - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Lincoln's murder, being slightly more well-known than the other two, requires more digging, and Vowell really goes the distance. She goes from historical landmarks, monuments, graveyards, seashore dying places (Garfield was shot in DC and after months of not healing, went to the Jersey Shore to escape the summer humidity), assassin enablers' prisons and, for instance, the store John Wilkes Booth bought his gun. She drags along her sister and young nephew for many of these treks because she doesn't drive. Her sister tries gamely to humor the morbid nature of these trips, but the nephew loves it all - he calls cemeteries "Halloween Parks."
You learn a lot about all three presidents, their VPs, the history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and America's peculiar fascination with guns. You learn that though Lincoln freed the slaves, his memorial service was segregated. Garfield's assassin was much more than "a disappointed presidential appointment-seeker: he wanted to be appointed Ambassador to France, was crazy, hilarious, homeless, and a product of an Upstate NY Bible Communist Sex Cult. Also, the guy who sheltered John Wilkes Booth after he fled DC apparently knew more about Booth than he let on to authorities: "Which is why, when authorities questioned Mudd, Mudd played dumb, claiming that he didn't recognize Booth because Booth was wearing a fake beard - lame."
Lame. Awesome. More than the history and the factoids that she imparts to her readers, I love her voice. She really does show herself in the narrative, and she's a sarcastic, nosy, lovable, dark, know-it-all. For this book, that voice really works perfectly.