Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
I have managed to gain about an hour and fifteen minutes of book time every day! For years, I have somehow missed a prime opportunity to consume more books on my daily drive to work. I’m a little late to the party, but I have finally embraced the audiobook.
Assassination Vacation is not my first audiobook, but it is my first one in a few years. I’ve had a few qualms with them. First, they are crazy expensive if you buy them outright. Audible seems like a better option, but I don’t know if I would get through enough in a month for it to be worth it. Then, there is sometimes the issue of the reader. Some of them may be good cures for insomnia but not awesome to listen to when you are driving.
Reflecting on my previous issues with audio books, I set out with a new plan. I got the Overdrive app on my phone and connected to my library. I then sought out some titles that lent themselves well to audiobook readings, and I found reviews and recommendations specific to the format. But it was going through my Goodreads list that made me think of Sarah Vowell. She is known for her radio work on NPR, so I figured it was a fair bet that she read her own audiobook. Also, this book is not brand new, so I thought I would stand a good chance of being able to check it out right away. That is something important to consider with the library. I placed a hold on Ready Player One that I will hopefully get by the end of the year, but I probably shouldn’t be holding my breath.
I liked Sarah Vowell on the radio, and I have read a couple of her other books, The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli. Take the Cannoli has the most moving essay about Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears called “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill.” I highly recommend reading it. I enjoy her thoughtful insight on American history, and that lead me to Assassination Vacation, a book about America’s first three assassinated presidents. She tours places across the country related to those involved in the stories of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
“I discovered that Robert Todd Lincoln was there for each of the first three assassinations. I wanted to write about the Lincoln Memorial, so when I found out he had attended its dedication, that helped focus it further.”
—Sarah Vowell on her book “Assassination Vacation”
Americans with average knowledge of American history (like me) know a decent bit about Lincoln’s presidency and at least the basic details of his assassination. He was, by far and away, the one I knew most about in this book. There was still plenty I did not know and many aspects of his presidency and assassination that I never considered. Vowell explores what made Lincoln who he was both as a man and leader of the country. Lincoln usually seems to be the president most easy for Americans to connect with, and this book reinforces that for me. Vowell even shows how people continue to connect as she recounts her experiences at the larger-than-life Lincoln memorial.
Vowell also carefully considers the role of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspiritors in the assassination. Booth genuinely thought people would be thankful for what he did and was shocked to discover just how wrong he was. The most fascinating story was of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the co-conspiritor who set Booth’s broken leg. His home has become a tourist site, still manned by his loyal descendants who dispute his role in the assassination. Vowell’s visits both his home and the site where he was imprisoned on the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Key West, Florida. These chapters were among the most memorable of the book for me because Vowell explains her opinion of his role while also taking time to deeply explore who he was and his experiences.
I have to admit, I was skeptical about how compelling the other two presidents would seem after Lincoln. My knowledge of Garfield and McKinley was limited and so was my interest. However, Vowell’s narrative is continually engaging. I even found something to connect with about Garfield. His journals sound like tedious reading, but she said the general theme was, “I’d rather be reading,” and I can relate to that. I wish I could say the same for McKinley; the most interesting thing about him was his Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.
Historical figures like these, who are separated from us by so many years, can come to seem inhuman and almost mythical. Sometime history books add a sort of mystique around these figures and make us forget they were just people. Vowell is skilled at reminding us of their humanity.
As an audio book, this is well suited because Vowell’s reading really enhances the sense of humor and wit in her writing. Also, I enjoyed the guest readers. My favorite was Stephen King as the voice of Lincoln.