Title: Assassination Vacation
Author: Sarah Vowell
Reviewed by Holly
Assassination Vacation – or Sarah Vowell’s books in general – were recommended by a friend when I was talking about my growing preference for nonfiction books, particularly nonfiction that tells a good story. I googled, and realized the Sarah Vowell has been a regular contributor to This American Life. This boded well, as did the description of Assassination Vacation on Goodreads:
“Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other — a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue — it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and — the author’s favorite — historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.”
Excellent, I thought – historical tourism with a quirky, Ira Glass-approved narrator. I was in.
When I started reading though, I didn’t take me long to realize that I was not enjoying this book. And, I had just read this post about the dilemma of reading something that you’re not digging – finish, or not? For the most part, I’m in Camp Finish. I wanted to give the book a fair shake, and I was holding out hope that it would get a little bit better.
The book is divided into 3 sections – Vowell visits sites related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. I was well into the Lincoln section, waiting for a chapter-break so I could put the book down for a while, when I realized that each section was a chapter, and the Lincoln “chapter” went from page 18 to 121. In and of itself, I suppose there is nothing wrong with exceedingly long chapters, but I think the reason for not breaking up the presidential sections into chunks, is that there really was no theme or ribbon or story arc to connect one incident to the next. And I don’t mean connect the Lincoln incident to Garfield, etc, but rather, to connect Vowell’s trips together. She starts Lincoln’s story while she sits in the audience of a play in Ford’s Theater, then walks over to the Library of Congress. Then next we get a history of the Surratt boardinghouse and the conspirators, followed by 3 paragraphs on the William Seward House, complete with remarks from the museum director. And suddenly next we are going to the Lincoln’s Birthday wreath ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.
All this, and we’re about 11 pages into Lincoln’s section. Vowell jumps from one place to another and from history to present day, and I just could not ever figure out where she was going and why. She doesn’t tell her pilgrimages in linear order, or in chronological order of the events, and she brings different friends and family members along on her trips who weave in and out of her narratives.
After reading the book, I have no idea if all of the escapades took place over 6 months or 4 years, and I would say that matters because I never really got a sense for why she was visiting all the sites she could related to the assassinations. She did hint at some interesting thoughts and perspectives, as well as throwing in some commentary on the then-presidential administration (W), but I was too distracted trying to keep up with what place she was visiting now, to really get a sense for her motivation – I mean, besides to write a book with a catchy title.
I did enjoy the Garfield (60 pages) and McKinley (50 pages) sections more than the Lincoln one, probably because I did not know very much about those presidents or those assassinations. Also, perhaps because there aren’t quite as many places to visit, Vowell had to slow down and give a bit more detail about each place she was visiting, which made these chapters much less jarring.
Parting Words – there were a few places where this book had great potential to be what I wanted it to be, instead of being a hotmess of just barely related visits to off-the-beaten-path historical sites. This is one of those places:
“And while I gave up God a long time ago, I never shook the habit of wanting to believe in something bigger and better than myself. So I replaced my creed of everlasting life with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ‘I believe in America,’ chants the first verse of one of my sacred texts, The Godfather. Not that I’m blind to the Psych 101 implications of trading in the martyred Jesus Christ (crucified on Good Friday) for the martyred Abraham Lincoln (shot on Good Friday).”