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Monday, August 24, 2009

Discussion Questions for Assassination Vacation

Here at the Berwyn Library, we compile book discussion kits (click here to see a list). One of our titles available for checkout is Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. However, this title does not have prepared discussion questions available.

Recently, we received an email request for questions for this title, and I figured if one person wants them, there are probably others out there interested in them too.

So here is the sheet of questions I prepared for discussing Assassination Vacation. Feel free to use and share. The information begins with this summary from the publisher:

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.

Discussion Questions for Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation prepared by Becky for the Berwyn Public Library

  1. Vowell has a unique voice. In Assassination Vacation she recounts the history behind three US Presidents’ assassinations as she experiences them through touring places that featured significant in their lives and deaths. However, this is not a straight, chronological history.? Did you like the author’s writing style and organization? Why or Why not?
  2. Assassination Vacation is only a partial history of the events surrounding the deaths of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. In fact, it is part history and part travelogue into the industry created by their deaths. In this book, what do you think Vowell is trying to say about American popular culture both in the past and the present? What does she think about our obsession with both the victims and the murderers?
  3. What were you favorite places Vowell visited in her travels? Who were your favorite people she met along the way?
  4. We are taught quite a bit about Lincoln and his death in school, but McKinley and Garfield are rarely mentioned. What new things did you learn about Presidents McKinley and Garfield? Has your opinion of them changed?
  5. This is a book about very public deaths, although Vowell goes to great lengths to add humor to the book. Did you find the book humorous? Did you find it ultimately uplifting or depressing?
  6. Did you think Assassination Vacation had enough details? What more would you like to find out about the “characters” and places in this book? Are you interested in personally visiting any of the places Vowell described?
  7. What are the strengths of this book? Where are its weaknesses? Would you suggest this book to a friend or another book group? Do you think this book would be a good addition to the reading list of a high school American History class? Why or why not?
  8. In what ways do you think this book might be controversial? Did anything about Vowell’s travelogue bother you?
  9. Vowell was inspired to go on her “assassination vacation,” after seeing the musical, “The Assassins.” Is there a uniquely themed vacation or tour which would interest you?

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