Learn all about presidents' murders in 'Assassination Vacation'

By Karinya Funsett
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Prior to reading Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation," I would never have believed that learning about presidential assassinations could be so much fun. Vowell takes her witty, sarcastic voice that first grabbed the attention of readers through "Take the Cannoli" and "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," and beefs it up with impeccable research to create a history book that people will actually want to read.

The 255-page book is divided into four chapters. The first - and longest - chapter is devoted to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The second belongs to ... who? Oh yes, James A. Garfield, or that one president guy who got shot and who we all then forgot about. The third chapter focuses on William McKinley, while the fourth ties up some loose ends and explores the curious life of Robert Todd Lincoln (Honest Abe's eldest son), who Vowell nicknames "Jinxy McDeath" for his freakishly close connection to each of the aforementioned assassinations. Notably missing from this collection of premature presidential deaths is John F. Kennedy, but that doesn't make the book any less valuable.

In fact, part of the charm of Vowell's exploration into the murky waters of vengeful presidential history is that she goes so far back in time to bring to light information that isn't widely known. She digs up trivia from the 1800s and not only presents it to us, but also makes relevant connections to more recent history and today's political climate.

For instance, Vowell doesn't simply tell the reader that John Wilkes Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis," or "Thus always to tyrants," after shooting Lincoln. She instead goes on to explain that on the day he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Lincoln and that same quote. And that after the bombing, the catalog from where that T-shirt came quickly sold out of them. And that that catalog was mailed to all subscribers of the pro-confederate magazine Southern Partisan, which featured an interview with a Missouri senator who commended the magazine for "defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis." And that that Missouri senator, John Ashcroft, went on to become the highest-ranking law enforcement official in America.

Vowell maintains a tone that is reverent, jaded, loving and sarcastic, all at the same time. Even though much of the book focuses on shameful and less-than-perfect parts of our national history and identity, Vowell is so deeply devoted to her country that even her criticism is patriotic. She loves this place.

Another aspect of the book that gives it more of an urgent, this-is-still-relevant feel is Vowell's narration of her travels to the historical sites associated with these assassinations. Interspersed through pages of carefully researched back-story and comparisons to the present, Vowell actually takes the reader to the places where these events happened. She describes buying a souvenir cookbook from the great-great-granddaughter of Booth co-conspirator Dr. Samuel A. Mudd at his house-turned-museum. She visits the former home of the Oneida Community, free-love "Bible communists" (turned teapot manufacturers), where Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau tried to get some before really losing his marbles and offing the president.

While Vowell's book is well-written and fascinating, its appeal won't extend to all readers. Those most likely to appreciate "Assassination Vacation" are readers who can appreciate irony, enjoy history and love America for its occasional absurdity. Though readers don't need to be hard-core history buffs like the author, a basic working knowledge of U.S. history is helpful, as Vowell doesn't dumb things down.

Part personal essay, history book, travel-guide and love letter to America in all its assassinating glory, Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation" is definitely worth a read, especially if you like your patriotism with a nice shot of cynicism.