Book written by Sarah Vowell
Long form journalism is a dangerous business. Personal memoir is the blog writ large with all of the attendant pitfalls in multitude. Lest we forget the likelihood of boring your audience- at least blogs are brief. And then there are those who dare create a beast with two heads: the long form personal memoir reportage. Confederates in the Attic and The Orchid Thief are classic examples.
Then there is Sarah Vowell. Her recent book on the history of Hawaii is brilliant, but I will always have a soft spot for Assassination Vacation– her tour of locations associated with assassinated presidents. Interspersed with her travels, she researches marginalia about the victims and the events, turning up remarkable insights that make the men more human and more remarkable.
I confess that this book moved me to visit at least one location discussed: the crypt of James Garfield in Cleveland, a side-trip I never would have considered because it never occurred to me that it was so easily accessible. Moreover, Vowell’s in-depth discussion of the man raised his short tenure quite high in my estimation. The crypt is indeed a national historical site with its single guide available at the entrance. Most striking of all was the simplicity of the coffins for husband and wife- resting in the basement for all to see and for me never to forget. As much as any place in the U.S. and far more than the majesty of so many other vistas more sculpted in their presentation, the site of one of our leaders so humbly presented at eternal rest reminded me why I love my country.
And that encapsulates the entire book for me. Team of Rivals, Founding Brothers, and so many others have done heavy lifting in changing our views of our most famous leaders. Vowell somehow sidesteps the pedestals upon which we place these people and brings them down to a height where we can look them in the eye. Yet, she is no iconoclast. She finds the greatness within their humanity. These dead presidents faced choices that sometimes derailed them and may very well have led to their premature deaths.
Moreover, Vowell has a way with the villains of the piece: the assassins. All were misguided and arguably clinically insane. Yet, they had motivation which proves of interest if only because they took their reasons for expiation of the worst of all crimes.
This could have been a litany of horrors as the horrors are plentiful and real. The craft that Vowell brings to the book allows the story to flow like a travelogue of the best of our country found within the worst. It is heavy history with a deft touch. She brings the This American Life style of embedding herself in the tale to a far grander stage, which should not have worked nearly as well.
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