A reminiscence: Years ago, I persuaded/forced my then-girlfriend to take a trip with me to the Little Big Horn battlefield near Hardin, Montana. It was at the Little Big Horn that Lt. Col. George Custer came to grief, forever making his name a synonym for "bad decision." It was quite a trek to make in a single weekend: Omaha to Montana. So we got to the battlefield after 20 straight hours of driving; slept outside the Ranger station waiting for it to open; then took in the battlefield, unwashed and unshaven and without even a cup of coffee. I was giddy (with exhaustion? with historical glee?), she was...patient (later, after she broke my heart, she swore this wasn't the reason she left, though I'm not sure I believed her, then or now).
At one point, I drove up to Reno Hill. It was empty. As I was (and am) writing a novel about America's westward expansion from 1854 to 1890, I had certain items with me: two cameras, a couple books, a notebook and pen, binoculars. I got out of the car with my non-digital camera and took a walk along Reno's line of defense. Since no one was around, I broke a rule or two and gingerly lowered myself into one of the rifle pits that had been dug 129 years earlier. I wrote down my impressions: what I could see; what the grass felt like against my skin; how hot it must have been. Then I went back to the car to get my digital camera.
I checked on my girlfriend, asking, as though she were a dog, if she had enough air in the car. Then I took my camera back to the old rifle pit to take a series of pictures forming a 360 degree view from the hill. It was then I noticed that I had dangerously few pictures remaining. This was odd, since I hadn't used the camera at all. I started going through my pictures. It was one self-portrait after another, each taken by my girlfriend as she sat waiting in the passenger seat of my car. I guess my passion wasn't as infectious as my [insert STD joke here:].
The point of this story? Sara Vowell is the woman I should have taken on this trip. Assassination Vacation is meant for those people (I include myself here) who do things like drive overnight from Omaha to Montana in order to look at a battlefield, or who call the National Park Service while driving the backroads of Wyoming looking for the Grattan Massacre monument, which is located in Farmer McDonald's corn field, or who can't pass by a historical marker without pulling the car over and hopping out with a camera.
The skeleton on which this book rests is the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Really, though, it's sort of a romp, where history, pop culture, and current events elide. Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, along with their respective assassins, Booth, Guiteau, and Czolgosz, are simply the starting point. She visits the places connected with their lives and deaths, which are often nothing more than a plaque or a roadside sign. Often, the places are only tenuously connected, but that's part of the fun.
The book is written with good-natured humor (and a little angry liberalism thrown in for good measure). I noticed in her acknowledgments that she thanks, among others, Dave Eggers and David Sedaris (I am envious of her life; I mean, look at all awesome people she must chill with on a daily basis. Ira Glass! Lucky!) Not to be whatever, but Vowell is not as great a writer as her buds. She doesn't have the stratospheric talent of Eggers, or the subtle craftsmanship of Sedaris (which is not really a knock, when you think about it). When I read this book, it was more like reading a great blog, in which she introduces the many varied characters in her own life while taking this pseudo-journey among the ghosts of dead presidents.
I didn't laugh out loud but once, but I really had a good reading experience. Vowell totally seems like an awesome traveling companion. A person who has facts and stories for every place you go. I've been accused of this, so it's nice to know there are others in the world who respect a good factoid (come to Omaha, and I'll tell you the trivia behind our street names, which are named after generals of the Frontier Army...Grenville Dodge, who surveyed for the railroad; William Harney, who beat a slave to death...etc.) Kerouac famously wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones; the only people for me are the curious ones. Vowell's curiosity is infectious. She wanders far and wide, read voraciously, and along the way meets people as impassioned as she is (I especially enjoy her section on Dr. Samuel Mudd, where her own intense dislike for the possibly-treacherous medicine man butts up against the Mudd family's centuries-long quest to rehabilitate their ancestor's good name...and make a quick buck on the side).
Vowell's style is breezy and digressive. Reading it was like listening to a chatty companion sitting next to you in a car or train. She comes across as mostly-genuine, though once in awhile, I found myself thinking she's a little too precious. I mean, does she really wear Bela Lugosi hair clips? Is anyone that awesome?
The only (minor) quibble I have is the lack of any footnotes or bibliography. Obviously, this is not a work of scholarship. Yet Vowell tosses off hundreds upon thousands of factual nuggets. It would be nice to know, before I start repeating them at cocktail parties, that she didn't get them off of Wikipedia. Heck, I don't even care about the footnotes (P.S. I LOVE footnotes), just tell me what sources you consulted. At one point, she mentions Ackerman's Dark Horse, which I have on my Amazon wish list, but that's about it. For a book written by a historically curious person, which is sure to spark the curiosity of many others, it would've been a helpful service to list the authors and works that guided her.
The lasting thing from this book is its empathy. I love history. I think more than anything, good history teaches us what it means to be human. For instance, I was looking for a good Lincoln book and was struck by a reader comment saying, in effect, that the author was too easy on Mary Todd Lincoln, who the commenter believed was crazier than a port-o-potty rat. I couldn't believe what I'd read. Sometimes, I guess, the inundation of facts obscures something important: that these were people first, and trivia second. I mean, Mary Todd lost three of her four children; her husband was shot in the head while she held in his hand. If she went crazy after all this, well, buddy, that's craziness she earned. I think we view history too much in the abstract; as a bas relief in a museum. Imagine yourself in her place. Imagine your soul-mate murdered next to you while you're in the theater watching the latest low point in Seann William Scott's career. The folks in the history books, the ones staring at you from a distant netherworld called the Past, were - and this is verificable - real people. From their trials, we can learn. As your mother might have said, in times like these, remember, there have always been times like these.
History is at its most powerful when it shows us how we are all connected by certain immutable traits: how we are born; how we laugh; how we hurt; how we fall in love; how we suffer; how we die. Even the greatest, the richest, the most powerful humans who have ever walked this earth are brought down to the level of the lowliest peasant by these things. (I call this the Everybody Poops School of History - it will eventually be worked in my PhD thesis).
That's sort of the evolving understanding Vowell came to, especially when tracing the deaths of Garfield and McKinley. These are men who, especially in Garfield's case, have been lost to history. Yet we know them, intimately, by sharing their final moments. They become, at the end, finally, human.