Sarah Vowell is a charmingly obsessed history nerd with a particular fascination for presidential assassinations and the cottage industry that has sprung up around them. Her book covers the first three assassinations in American history, those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. Perhaps she decided there were more than enough books about the Kennedy assassination.
Of the three, Lincoln’s is the most well-known, and it takes up the largest portion of the text. Vowell visits the reconstructed Ford’s Theater, Booth’s grave site, the prison that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, the houses that the president and his assassin and his collaborators lived in, and many, many museums housing artifacts of the shooting. Vowell quickly and capably presents the historical facts around the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, and her wit and verve make this brisk retelling worthwhile even for those quite familiar with the event.
The Garfield and McKinley assassinations are much less renowned, and often are barely covered in standard high school American History classes. Therefore these two sections are a little quirkier than the Lincoln. There aren’t many memorials to Garfield, making those that exist obscure and well worth the attention. McKinley’s presidency has been so thoroughly overshadowed by that of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, that the circumstances surrounding his death were unfamiliar to me. Especially of interest was the account of Roosevelt receiving the news that McKinley had been shot, making him president. The rambunctious V.P. was summitting a mountain at the time, requiring an Army messenger to sprint uphill to deliver the message.
Vowell’s interest in anything with even the slightest connection to these events is infectious, and her ability to connect the administrations of the past with their more recent successors is amusing and interesting to consider. While Vowell’s unflagging liberalism might rankle some, her self-deprecating humor makes it be irritated by her.
For both serious students and for those who could stand to fill in the gaps of their education, Assassination Vacation is a quick, fun look into some of the darker moments in our nation’s history.