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Friday, February 27, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Manhunt

This month, my book club was pushed back a week because of the President's Day holiday, but we still found time to honor the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth by reading and discussing James Swanson's Manhunt: the 12-day Chase for Lincoln's Killer.

Manhunt is the story of John Wilkes Booth's (hereafter JWB) assassination of Lincoln, his collaborators, his escape, and ultimate capture. Swanson's best-seller drew upon primary documents, including the pages from JWB's personal diary while he was on the run.

After reading 400 pages on the assassination and the manhunt, I thought I would shake things up by beginning our meeting with the question, what if JWB had missed? This led to an interesting discussion about Lincoln's death and what it meant for the country. As one participant pointed out, Reconstruction might not have gone so badly if Lincoln had stayed at the helm. However, as a few others pointed out, Lincoln's death transformed him from a controversial figure into a martyr overnight. His death sped up the healing process, as North and South united over their outrage at his assassination. It also elevated him to the status of our greatest President ever; a title many in the group thought he might not have today if he had lived to finish his second term.

We continued with this hypothetical discussion for awhile. But then moved on to talking about some of the characters. We talked about how Mary Surratt was the first woman executed in America, and although, she was definitely a key player in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, it is not clear if her offenses were worthy of death. Many liked the rebel "river ghost" Thomas Jones. Although he was instrumental in allowing JWB to escape to Virginia, most of the group admired his code of honor and his commitment to his cause. Finally, Dr. Mudd. He was not the smartest man. He helped JWB, had previously conspired with him to kidnap Lincoln, went out of his way to draw attention to himself during the manhunt, and couldn't keep his lies straight. He now lives on forever in our idiomatic speech whenever we say, "my name is mud."

This discussion of those who helped JWB led us a step further to talk about whether or not JWB is a sympathetic character in this book. We agreed that we have to have some sympathy for his plight and his pain in order to be invested in the "story" as readers. But one participant thought JWB was the epitome of evil and she could not sympathize with him at all. Another person read a passage from the end of the book, an excerpt from Asia Booth's (JWB's sister) memoir. In this passage Asia links JWB and Lincoln as a necessary pair in our history. Her argument, summarized, is that in order for our country to heal and come back together after the Civil War, we needed JWB to be the assassin in order to solidify Lincoln as the hero.

However, the most important factor in our ability to find JWB as a sympathetic character is because we know the outcome. This is nonfiction remember. The entire time we are reading, following JWB's exploits and close calls, we know that he will be caught and killed. It is easier to sympathize with a killer when you know he will pay for his sins. If this were fiction, with an unknown outcome, we might have felt differently as we were reading. Speaking of fiction, one participant loved how Swanson was able to recount the Manhunt in a style that read like historical fiction. Although I knew it was true, she recounted, it was almost unbelievable.

So who is the hero of this book? Definitely, JWB is our protagonist and Lincoln is a hero, but the group thought in this book, Secretary of War, Stanton, was the "hero" of the story. Despite the immense loss he felt as a result of the death of his friend, Lincoln, Stanton set up the manhunt office, right next to Lincoln's death bed. His willingness to fill the vacuum left by Lincoln's leadership kept the country from falling into chaos. People also found Secretary Seward and his family very heroic. They were all in mortal danger from the craziest of JWB's conspirators, and they fought him off valiantly.

We also spent some time making comparisons between between Lincoln's assassination and Kennedy's. We also talked about the manhunt for JWB vs that for Osama Bin Laden. And we touched on the question of whether or not we, as a country have forgiven JWB.

I ended by bringing the discussion full circle. Since we began by asking what if JWB missed, I ended with the question, what if JWB and his conspirators had succeeded in killing Lincoln, VP Johnson and Secretary of State Seward? Would we have gone back into Civil War? There were arguments on both sides, but one participant helped us wrap up the discussion by noting that when the fighting ends with a treaty, the war does not really end the next day. She noted that the Civil War is still being fought today.

While we were having our discussion many other nonfiction titles were mentioned. Another participant read , April 1865: the Month that Saved America by Jay Winik for her other book club this month. She says the Winik title is also written in a narrative fashion and was fun to read in conjunction with Manhunt. The Doris Kearns Goodwin award-winning Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was also mentioned during the discussion. There are many other biographies and histories about Lincoln and his times. You can use this link to begin your exploration, or turn to Swanson's excellent bibliography at the back of Manhunt

For those interested in getting more information about the Civil War, there is no better place to begin that with Shleby Foote's 3 volume history entitled Civil War: A Narrative. And don't forget the documentary series which made Ken Burns famous, The Civil War.

Still others may have been intrigued by those who helped JWB because of their love of the Confederacy. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Tony Horwitz explores those who still, over 100 years after the South lost, are still intrigued by the Confederacy. His findings are surprising and highly entertaining.

For the fiction lovers there are literally hundreds of novels that touch on the subject of Lincoln and the Civil War. Two of my personal favorites are The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara's novel retelling the Battle of Gettysburg from 5 perspectives, and Mr Lincoln's Wars: a Novel in Thirteen Stories by Adam Braver which also employs various perspectives to create a fuller picture of the great President.

Finally, there is one good novel about JWB entitled, Booth: a Novel by David Robertson in which the author spends more time speculating why and how JWB did what he did than Swanson does in Manhunt.

1 comment:

Brad Wirz said...

Thanks for the review Becky! I decided to read Manhunt for myself and thoroughly enjoyed it! I usually read history books that cover a wide swath of time, measured in the hundreds or thousands of years. In contrast, Manhunt's focus on a period of just 12 days was refreshing... it read like a novel to me!

Wow, what if JWB had missed? I'm pretty sure he would have been trampled quickly. How different the world would be is hard to imagine.

And yes, I found myself secretly rooting for JWB, even though his actions were deplorable. Rightly, Swanson did a good job of making sure to squash an heroic stature that JWB gained throughout the course of the story.

Thanks for the review!