In February, we got together to discuss Assassination Vaction, a non-fiction book written by Sarah Vowell, who is an actress and a contributor to NPR. This book was chosen by Steeper Angela way back when and we were happy to have finally gotten to it! That being said, when I started the book I quickly began to think, “Oh no, we can’t read this for book club. Politics and religion. They’re the two things we shouldn’t talk about . . . how could I have not seen this coming?!? Why didn’t I realize that a book about the assassination of presidents would absolutely make several political statements?! What am I going to do?!?”
The answer is: read the book and trust that my book club participants will respect each other’s ideas and stances without attacking each other. So that’s what I did and that’s totally what happened. Assassination Vacation was written and published in the later years of George W. Bush’s presidency and let’s just say that Vowell has definite opinions about our 43rd president. We were all slightly amused and slightly amazed when Vowell pretty openly declares that she dislikes W enough to understand why some presidents have been assassinated. She then clarifies that she doesn’t condone presidentcide, (what is the equivalent of regicide, anyway?!? Turns out that according to vocabulary.com “regicide” can apply to a president or a prime minister. Who knew?) but that her distaste for Bush and his politics, especially of his handling of post 9/11 matters, has made her more interested in the people who killed Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, & Garfield. Thus begins a journey across the east coast to look into the cases . . . the group wondered why Kennedy wasn’t included, but concluded that it was likely due to how recent the assassination was and also because Vowell doesn’t drive and therefore decided to keep it to the sites she could conveniently visit by train (or friends who drive).
While Assassination Vacation is a fascinating look into the past and the facts about the presidents and their killers, I’m afraid that several us would read a section and then completely forget about it. Poor Garfield and . . . his killer . . . we kept forgetting them both entirely. Understandably, most of the focus is on Lincoln, partly because he was the first to be assassinated and partly because of the sensationalism surrounding him, his presidency, and that of the famous John Wilkes Booth. We were all pleased that there were some things about Lincoln and Booth that we were surprised to learn. For instance, many of us forget that Secretary of State William Seward was attacked and nearly killed the same night. I was especially moved by the story of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the President and First Lady’s guests at Ford Theatre that fateful night. I had heard of their presence before, but had never heard about Rathbone’s mental decline following the assassination. He would later murder his wife and spend the rest of his life in an insane asylum.
Steeper Maureen thought that she would not recommend the book to others, mostly noting the feeling that chunks of it were so utterly forgettable. Many of us still enjoyed the book and found that Vowell, while being pretty emotional about current (at the time) politics was able to present the narrative in an interesting and enjoyable format, interwoven with plenty of humor. My very favorite moment was when Vowell described Robert Todd Lincoln as “Jinxy McDeath” and went on to discuss his role in being present or seeing all three of the assassinated presidents shortly before their assassinations. Her descriptions of Edwin Booth’s Lincoln connections were also very amusing and possibly add to why the Lincoln section of the book is the most memorable.
As a final thought, there was some discussion about the handedness of the presidents. We have several south paws at book club so they were very interested in a rumor that several presidents (including 3 of our last 4!) were also left handed. We did a little research and found that Ronald Regan was considered ambidextrous due to being forbidden to write left handed at school. Steeper George had us all in stitches when he mused, “I wonder if he signed left wing leaning bills with his left hand and right wing bills with his right?”
February was a tough month at my house. My kitchen pipes were frozen and I also had a pipe burst in my garage so my steepers were kind enough to forgive me for the store-bought treats that I served . . . however, I was amused that I finished reading Assassination Vacation on President’s Day, it seemed appropriate.
Assassination Vacation is a quick easy read and many of us would recommend it . . . at least to Democrat friends. 🙂 3.5 teacups from the Steepers.