I thought the weird road-trips my husband and I went on were the end all be all of strange vacations. But Sarah Vowell unquestionably wins the dubious nonexistent prize as–Best Ghoulish, Yet Fascinating, Entertaining, and Educational Vacation. I finally finished reading her part political, part historical, part macabre, part travelogue, part opinion, part essay, part humor, book-Assassination Vacation. Catchy title, right? Succinct and exact, for the book chronicles her wanderings from one presidential death site to another. Three, in all, with the more recent, John Fitzgerald Kennedy left as an aside in the last pages where she recounts the eerie correlations between Lincoln and Kennedy’s doomsdays. She takes the reader on various junkets in Washington DC pouncing upon every plaque recalling obscure historical events at long gone sites, all in relation to either Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley’s assassinations. Considering many have no idea that we had presidents with the name Garfield and McKinley, the fact that there are various and sundry commemorative pieces throughout the country is fascinating, at least to me. Because I feel as if I have a twin in Ms. Vowell, or daughter, considering she’s incredibly young to be a well known essayist and guest on Jon Stewart, which is where I heard of the book and the author to begin with.
Some of the spots she’s traveled to are also places I’ve made a point of visiting. The cemetery in Baltimore where within lies the body of John Wilkes Booth, notorious actor and presidential killer was a must see. Unfortunately for me, the cemetery, located in the worst poverty stricken area I’ve encountered since the late 1970s Bronx NY, or speeding through Camden NJ a couple of days ago–had just closed the second we finally found our way to the entrance after circling a few times. A big disappointment, because besides Booth, there were many other fascinating corpses within, none of which I remember now. Still, we share staring at Poe’s last resting place, except that too was closed–or rather, under renovation–although how you renovate a gravesite is beyond me–I had to press my face between the hard black fence posts, just to catch a glimpse of, who knows? I couldn’t tell.
Just last summer we trekked to the opulent monstrosity built for the rather tepid president, James Garfield after his passing–due mostly to incompetent medical care. After having been shot, several idiotic doctors decided they needed to locate the bullet within his flesh, and poked and prodded with dirty fingers until they made quite sure they’d cause a severe enough infection to do him in. He lingered down the Jersey Shore, another spot I’ve been to, with no knowledge that a president expired feet from the beach. Garfield’s monument is so over the top, it’s hard to comprehend what they were thinking when it was built. He hardly made an impact as president, yet here was a grand monument, because? He was murdered. Period. Inside are murals depicting the location he was wounded, the railway station in D. C., with his assassin clearly identifiable. Charles J. Guiteau used the defense of malpractice arguing he didn’t kill the president, the doctor’s did, he merely pulled the trigger. I was obsessed with presidential tidbits as a kid. One of my favorite pastimes was reading and re-reading the World Book Encyclopedia volumes, each one highlighting a president and his accomplishments. I had memorized the presidents in order, and can still recite them up to around Van Buren, then I get lost until I hit Buchanan and go south again after Grant. So Garfield falls somewhere within that murky area before I find my way again beginning with McKinley, then it’s smooth sailing all the way to Obama–I can even recite them backwards, which I do every so often aware that this is one of the test marks for Alzheimer’s. Reading the World Book’s bio of Garfield my knowledge of his assassin consisted of his being ‘a disappointed office seeker’. As a child, I had no idea what an office seeker was, and a ‘disappointed’ one didn’t add to my understanding. What I gathered was, a pissed off guy shot the president, and really, aren’t they all? Otherwise, I would think they’d pursue other avenues in life.
According to Ms. Vowell and her extensive research, Guiteau was much more than disappointed, he was down right nuts. But– a very cheerful crazy person. Upbeat, optimistic, his goal was to rid the Republican party of Garfield, and return to power what were called Stalwarts, the cronies of corrupt political boss, Roscoe Conkling whose iron grip on the New York Custom House was countermanded by Garfield.
With great humor Ms. Vowell relates her excursions, but every visit has it’s serious points, and philosophical ones. When ruminating about McKinley’s rule and his preemptive strike against Spain in Cuba, and the arrogance the country cloaked itself in after The Spanish American War, she sees history repeating itself at the point in time she wrote the book. George W. Bush had just pushed us into Iraq with creepily similar sound bites to McKinley’s reasonings as to why we needed to crush a foreign nation. She unflinchingly points out the hypocrisy our country was built upon, the slaughtering of native Americans, to gain control of the land, and our disregard for the people we were ‘freeing’ from Spanish rule after the war was won, by supporting and propping up dictators and despots in Cuba until Castro put an end to it. She relates how McKinley’s policies and our armed troops slaughtered countless Philippine natives in the guise of creating a safe well governed country, because those N words couldn’t govern themselves. And yet, her love of country, her appreciation for the struggles, good and bad, this country has endured, is evident throughout. She’s patriotic in the best possible sense–she sees the country, warts and all, and doesn’t flinch from the truth, as so many others do while swathed in the flag. And she unearths humor throughout it all. She has her 3 year old Addams family nephew tagging along on these trips, who loves the ‘Halloween parks’ which are known as cemeteries to the rest of us, and who when gazing upon the caskets of Garfield and wife, complains there are no skeletons in view. My take on that area was the fact the rest rooms were located within inches of their bodies. It was, how do I put it? Unseemly, some how. With all the pomp of stained glass windows and huge marble likeness above, having the latrines so close to the martyred man was not only funny, it was sort of sad.
One of the best aspects of Vowell’s research and travels are the obscure people and places we are introduced to. Obscure, only if you’ve no historical reference to begin with, because during the eras of these presidents, the players within were as powerful and obnoxiously visible as Karl Rove or Rupert Murdock are now. And those two men will be as unknown and un cared about when they are dust too, which is a consolation as one watches the devastation left in their wake. Vowell’s trips are rife with interesting factoids, but more importantly, these disparate pieces are strung together so skillfully that the reader comes away from the book not only entertained, but gifted with a much greater insight into this country, it’s leaders, and countrymen.