Monday, November 10, 2008


If you are the type of reader who enjoys books such as Confederates in the Attic by Horwitz or even Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, you may be a perfect victim for the charms of Sarah Vowell’s delightful Assassination Vacation. A humorous stew of history, historical trivia, personal observations, flippant asides, and almost reverent affection for museum docents and National Parks rangers (the fact that she was a Smithsonian intern is no surprise), the reader is taken along a meandering trip through the historical oddness that is presidential assassination history. One is not quite sure at times when she is poking fun or being serious; you also wonder if all the sidekicks who ferry her to different locations (she claims to be phobic about driving) and accompany her to the sites are fictitious or real. But it is a trip worth taking. Although some of her friends do not feel her excitement or appreciate her morbid interest, I for one would be right alongside her enjoying each new nugget of unusual fact or frippery. I too would be fascinated by the off-the-track museums and historical sites (as one who has driven many family members crazy, and will continue to do so, by stopping during road trips to read every historical marker). Her blatant anti-W and liberal stance endears her to me as well. I must confess, however, that I am envious of her ability to travel so freely, even if handicapped by phobias.
Although much of what Vowell covers is familiar to me (yes, I was a history major), there were plenty of interesting tidbits and anecdotes, delightfully told. I love her descriptions of ghoulish historical artifacts, from skull fragments to railroad-building tiles. Some of the stories are riveting. One Booth kills a president, while his brother later saves the slain president’s son from death in a railroad mishap. What a strange life did Robert Todd Lincoln live (having been in close proximity to three assassinations). While almost everyone knows about Mudd’s incarceration for helping Booth with his injured leg and his later heroics in fighting a yellow fever outbreak while in federal detention off the coast of Florida, her account of his probable complicity and actual life in prison was very instructive. She humorously rehabilitates, to a degree, the memory of James Garfield. The account of the Oneida Community and its role in tolerating Charles Guiteau is interesting. I love the line, in connection with describing the sexually liberated community that later spermed (ahhh, I mean spawned) the kitchenware company, in talking about her favorite tea pot: "but now, when I watch the steam rise from the yellow spout, I like to pretend I’m seeing people breathe." I really smiled when I read her assertion that the secret theme of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition was (in response to Western Hemisphere jitters caused by the US becoming a world power in 1898): "We’re Not Going To Shoot You (Especially If You Buy Our Stuff).
Oddly enough, there is almost nothing, if I remember correctly, on JFK (except for a piece those who highlight the similarities between the AL &JFK events), and definitely no separate section, though choosing not to do a humorous take on this assassination may have been prudent in light of its more recent occurrence, and the fact that still-living individuals who witnessed the horror might stalk the author with terrible designs in their hearts.
Nevertheless, her writing and book are enjoyable. Perhaps she is master at being prepared when she enters a museum or historical site to ask the best questions of the staff. Clearly she is enamored with New York City. I think this would be the kind of book that would draw more young people to history, or at least the pursuit of the unusual. So, where do I sign up for her next vacation trip?

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