Schmacko's Reviews > Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
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Jul 02, 2009

really liked it
Read in July, 2009

Sarah Vowell is the Morrissey of historical essayists. They both have black hairdos that frame skin as pale as organic basmati rice. They don’t wear pastels, and there is something Byronesque and poetic about each. They share a deep love of being sardonic, morbid, somewhat creepy and slightly self-deprecating.

However, Vowell doesn’t sing, she speaks; it’s a tiny, distant voice that sounds like a bored Miss Teen America hooked on cough syrup. (Her tone is so unique that the animators at Pixar used her for the teenaged daughter in The Incredibles.) Vowell’s strange timbre can be heard regularly on National Public Radio (meaning that she is also a flaming liberal.) On top of that, she’s a bit of a brainiac who writes darkly comic books about American history.

I’m reviewing two of these books here. The first is Assassination Vacation, about how Vowell spent her personal time and energy traveling around exploring murdered US Presidents and the people who killed them. The second, The Wordy Shipmates, is about the black-clad Puritans, the modern misconceptions of them, and their affect on American politics and culture to this day.

I’m overjoyed to report that none of Vowell’s history is dull and dusty. She has a great sense of dry humor, and she finds morose and amusing ways to illuminate national events. She has a talent for finding the obscure and strange, holding it up to the light, and saying wry and strange things about it. She even elicits the right amount of perverse awe and reverence for, say, the chips of Lincoln’s skull that sit in the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. today. (They’re in a glass case, next to the mashed bullet that killed him.)

I also appreciated that she was sensitive to the outsider. She treats murderers like John Wilkes Booth and Leon Czolgosz (he killed McKinley) as whole people, not just random, dismissible madmen. And she doesn’t shirk from painting realistic pictures of the slain leaders. Lincoln was often bumbling and awkward. McKinley was a bit of an ass who started the US world domination and provided us reason to violently force our agendas on other people via our military. (Hello, Iraq and Afghanistan! Remember Korea and Vietnam? All thanks to McKinley.)

Furthermore, Vowell’s writing lets us know what all this obscure trivia means to modern Americans. As a liberal, Vowell doesn’t like the Puritans, but she admires their tenacity, their honesty, and their ability to affect us today. Oddly, this makes her a good spokesperson for them. When some of us use the word “Puritanical” to describe both modern sexual repression and Pentecostal glee, Vowell corrects us. Although the Puritans were strict and a bit obsessed with self-denial, they were fairly sexually active...within the bounds of marriage and procreation, of course. They also would never accept the Pentecostal idea of God speaking to lowly individuals; the Puritans exiled Anne Hutchison to the wildernesses of Connecticut for such heresy that God would have anything new to say past what’s already in the Bible. (So, the Puritans would have none of that “my personal Lord and Savior Jesus Christ talked to me” stuff.)

I’m not quite sure Vowell gives a particularly thorough, groundbreaking or erudite view of either subject, but she’s engaging. She also gets lost on so many tangents; thankfully, these sidetracks are mostly intriguing and often humorous.

Most importantly, like Morrissey, Vowell’s dark and morbid fascinations are rendered in surprisingly entertaining fashions. Because of that, both artists have created niche audiences who love them and would follow them like religious zealots to the ends of the earth.
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