Death and sunscreen: Making a tour of assassinated presidents

April 17, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Staff

Assassination Vacation

By Sarah Vowell. Simon & Schuster. 259 pages. $21.

Sarah Vowell would not seem to be the ideal travel companion. She gets seasick easily. She can't read maps. And when faced with the choice of snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas or touring the prison that held the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, she'll take the prison every time.

In her new book, Assassination Vacation, Vowell tours historic sites linked to the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and William McKinley. Given that two of the three don't even show up on our currency (Vowell notes that the most famous thing said about Garfield is that no one has any idea who he was), I wondered if the author could maintain a compelling narrative.

I needn't have worried. Vowell could make a trip to the DMV interesting. Delighting in the ironies and oddities of America's past, she succeeds by telling history through her own skewed filter. It's hard to imagine any historian being able to find a parallel between Garfield assassin Charles Giteau and the current Fox teen hit The O.C., but Vowell does.

What you're getting is not so much history as Vowell's twisted take on it. She follows tangents without shame. She dishes historical gossip. And she has an adorable little nephew, Owen, who enjoys accompanying her to cemeteries.

We learn: The dedication ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial, in 1922, was segregated. "Segregated!" Vowell marvels. John Wilkes Booth timed his fatal shot at Ford's Theatre to coincide with a laugh line, so Lincoln was hit in mid-guffaw. Given what the man endured in life, Vowell says, it's comforting to know his last conscious moment was a hoot. And we're told that after McKinley had been shot, the president saved his attacker from an angry mob. "Go easy on him, boys," the stricken president supposedly said.

Vowell spends the most time with the Lincoln assassination, obsessively following every thread of the story. She travels from the Southern Maryland home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who treated Booth after he broke his leg at Ford's Theatre, to the Old State Capitol building in Illinois, site of the last of Lincoln's 14 funerals.

She also visits the Florida grave of Lewis Thornton Powell, the co-conspirator who tried to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward on the night Lincoln was killed, and Tongass Island in Alaska, where a totem pole of shame depicting a red-eared Seward was erected after he bought Alaska in 1867 and failed to give a gift to a local chief.

Vowell doesn't break any new ground in historical scholarship. But this book is more about Vowell herself, about what catches her eye, than a somber retelling of historic events. What other history book will tell you about the recipe for cherry nut bars you can find in the Mudd family cookbook, or that the Garfield Monument on Capitol Hill is "exceedingly gay" because of the hunky, skimpily clad male figures at the foot of the sculpture?

Perhaps best known for her witty, sardonic essays on public radio's This American Life, Vowell brings the same sensibility to Assassination Vacation. She refers to President Bush only as "our current president" because "it's a hopeful phrase." But for the most part, she leaves out her politics to focus on the richer subject of American history in all its wonderful weirdness.

She explains how she came to really like Garfield, for instance, when she learned of his addiction to books. "If there is a recurring theme in Garfield's diaries, it's this: I'd rather be reading," she writes. And she lingers over the stunning realization that Robert Todd Lincoln was present at all three assassinations -- his father's, Garfield's and McKinley's. Asked to attend a White House function late in his life, he said, "If only they knew, they wouldn't want me there."

Part travelogue, part history text and part memoir, Assassination Vacation is more fun than it has any right to be -- a bizarre road trip into some of the most searing moments of the nation's past with one of our most amusing storytellers at the wheel.

Stephen Kiehl covers pop culture for The Sun.

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