Monday, May 18, 2009
I've spent the last week of commuting in the quirky company of historical commentator Sarah Vowell, reading her book Assassination Vacation. The book traces the people and events leading up to and immediately following the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, interspersing fascinating historical narrative with Vowell's own experiences visiting the markers, artifacts, and monuments that remain from those events. Her unique roadtrip tracks down every route of interest, no matter how seemingly remote or trivial, meandering from the Mütter Museum of pathology which has a piece of the brain of Garfield's assassin; to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, the desolate prison where Dr. Samuel Mudd served, for aiding John Wilkes Booth in his flight after shooting Lincoln; to the Tahawas Club in the Catskills where Teddy Roosevelt received word that McKinley had been shot. Her observations and her conversations with rangers, docents, and other people connected to historical sites, combined with her intricate knowledge, make it an engrossing trip through both history and the Americana that commemorates it. She has a great nose for history's trivial ironies: who knew that Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln would be in close proximity to three presidential assassinations ("the presidential angel of death" as Vowell dubs him), or that John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin saved Lincoln's son. Vowell would be really fun to travel with in real life. She even succeeds in making James Garfield interesting. Apparently among the author's many quirks is that she doesn't drive, so she is always prevailing upon friends to take her places. Sarah, when you're working on your next book, I'll be happy to drive you for one of your explorations!