Assassination Vacation

This is yet another book I discovered via Nick Hornby and his fine book-about-books entitled Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. At the end of that post, back in March of 2006, I mentioned that I wanted to read Assassination Vacation. It’s amazing that a book I read five years ago is still influencing my reading life. It was brought to mind recently because I saw Sarah Vowell on Letterman and I thought she was hilarious. I finally complied with my proclamation from five years ago and bought Assassination Vacation for the Kindle.

This is part history book, part political commentary, and part travel book. Additionally, it’s all funny. Her writing is just as hilarious as the Letterman interview. Her humor is not for everyone, it’s often dark, negative, and sarcastic. She’s kind of like a mean Bill Bryson. I love it though, in fact, I think it’s brilliant.

Vowell, for some reason, is obsessed with presidential assassinations. She likes to visit assassination sites and view memorabilia from the horrific events. She’s especially excited if there’s a plaque commemorating something related to the assassination. Here is a passage illustrating the giddiness she often feels when she encounters an assassination-related site, in this case it’s a visit to the site of Mary Surratt’s boarding house:

Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll. I place an order for broccoli and bubble tea, then squint at an historic marker in front of the restaurant quoting Andrew Johnson that this was “the nest in which the egg was hatched.”

If you can’t tell, she’s especially excited by Abraham Lincoln, her favorite president. She’s a staunch defender of persecuted peoples and critical of our country’s treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, which could have something to do with why she reveres Lincoln so. She pulls no punches and you can feel her anger when she talks about those who have wronged others in the name of race, including family members. For example, she discusses the grandfather paradox while relating the story of the grandson of Dr. Mudd as he tries to clear his grandfather’s name, and then contrasts this to her feelings towards her great-great-grandfather:

What I like about the grandfather paradox is that it treats time travel not as some lofty exercise in cultural tourism – looking over Melville’s shoulder as he wrote Moby-Dick – but as a petty excuse to bicker with and gun down one’s own relatives. I just so happen to have a grandfather who deserved it, my great-great-grandfather, John Vowell. The reason why I would set the wayback machine for the sole purpose of rubbing him out is this: In the 1860s, the teenage John Vowell joined up with pro-slavery guerrilla warrior William Clarke Quantrill, who has been called the “most hated man in the Civil War,” which is saying something.

Sarah, you had me at “rubbing him out,” you wacky woman.

Mostly, this book is a hodgepodge of facts, figures, and commentary related to the first three presidential assassinations:

  1. Lincoln (April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth)
  2. Garfield (July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau)
  3. McKinley (September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz)

She’s focused on these three, I think, because they’re linked by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who “was in close proximity” to all three assassinations. Robert Todd Lincoln gets a fair amount of space in this book as do a whole host of other characters. Vowell creatively brings in a bunch of tangential characters and weaves them into this milieu of political commentary and travelogue. Well done.

Yes, she has a political take that not all are going to agree with, especially Republicans and who think we’ve always been on the right track with our foreign policy. If you’re of this ilk, you may find Vowell full of hard edges. She wrote this book during the Iraq war and says:

When I told a friend I was writing about the McKinley administration, he turned up his nose and asked, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe because we seem to be reliving it?”

Even so, she shows her sentimental side often, like this passage about Garfield’s pessimism and his love for books:

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It’s hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn’t mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on “Heroin.”

Or she’ll speak lovingly of her nephew Owen, who accompanies her on many legs of the assassination vacation:

I have not been particularly shocked by how much I love Owen, but I am continually pleasantly surprised by how much I like him. He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

I also liked the Chicago tie-ins; inevitable, you would think, because of Lincoln, but they’re a little more subtle than you would expect. For instance, she manages to throw in Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright:

Secondly, with a building as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, it’s such a given, seems so inevitable, I cannot imagine the Mall without it. Moreover, it’s so universally revered it’s hard to believe there were ever protests against the way it looked. But when Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French, and their fellow commissioners chose Henry Bacon’s Greek temple design for the Lincoln Memorial in 1913, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, threw a fit.

I’ll mention it again, this was a nice combo of humor and history and a great book. It will enlighten and entertain, and run you through a series of differing emotions. What more could you ask of a good book?