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Thursday, January 26, 2012

What I'm Reading: Destiny of the Republic

Last week, I finished one of 2011's best picks for Nonfiction, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.  Previously, my book group read Millard's other critically acclaimed book, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.  You can use the link to read all about that one and to see readalikes.

This book is a detailed recounting of James A. Garfield's unexpected rise to the Presidency and the story of his assassin, Charles Guiteau.  I will not give away the interesting details of how these two men's stories were set on a trajectory towards a violent collision because allowing Millard to reveal them to me as I read was one of the joys of the book.  There were times I literally gasped with shock at this book. Personally, I love it when history can still shock me.

She also recounts a brief biography of Alexander Graham Bell because Bell created a metal detector specifically to try to find the bullet lodged in Garfield.  It goes into some detail about his background and personal life, specifically his family and his great frustration with all the grief the invention of the telephone brought him.

But it is the information on the radical differences of opinions in medical science at this time where this book shines.  Millard slowly introduces the vehement fight between doctors at the time with the new idea of trying to keep things sterile led by Dr. Lister against the old way of the grubbier the better.  Literally she describes doctors wearing dirty coats into surgery like a badge of honor; wiping instruments on their bloodied shirts from one surgery to the next, without washing a thing!

The crazy thing is, Lister was seen as wrong for wanting to keep things sterile.  Millard uses the case of Garfield to show how the world was soon going to fall in line with Lister.  Garfield's doctors, led by Dr. Bliss, are what killed him, not the bullet.  In fact, as Millard tells us, the shot Garfield sustained then, would barely keep him in the hospital 24 hours today.  To see how he suffered all summer waiting to die of an infection is quite horrific, but unfortunately 100% accurate.

While I enjoyed the medical parts, this book works because of Millard's obvious affection for Garfield.  In a letter posted on Amazon here, Millard wrote,  "This book is my attempt to step back in time, to understand these men and this moment in history, and to tell a story that should never have been forgotten."  Her compassion and personal interest in this forgotten history comes through in her prose. She tells a specific story about particular men, but it is also our American story.

Sadly, Garfield knew he would be forgotten.  I think that is what I take away most from this book.  For the first time, I am thinking about how different America would have been if Garfield had lived, instead of viewing him as a footnote in our history.  He was staunchly for the equal rights of blacks at a time when that was an uncommon political stance. Could he have helped to bring about Civil Rights sooner?  If I go by Millard's overall argument, probably not.  It was in how his death united the country that Garfield made the biggest strides of any post-Civil War President to bring the country back together.

I was so mad at Guiteau by the end of the book.  Millard made me go from never thinking about Garfield to being in awe of his intelligence, fairness, and statesmanship to then mourning him, all in 350 pages.  That is a good book.

The combination of Millard's engaging voice, her ability to cram in lots of details without overwhelming the reader, and her research which allowed her to link independent events of the era and show how they all played out through Garfield's shooting, long suffering, and eventual death, is a joy to watch unfold.  This book may be about Garfield's assassination on the surface, but at its heart it is a story about an adolescent America going through some real growing pains, trying to move into adulthood.

Any readers who like smart, interesting, and entertaining narrative nonfiction should read this book.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  engaging, compelling, richly detailed

Readalikes:  Although the tone is completely different, I kept thinking of Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. In this book, Vowell uses her trademark geeky humor to delve further into the ways in which the assassination of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were played out in a cultural context.  In the process of reading Vowell's book I learned quite a bit about Guiteau, and I knew the weirdness of Robert Todd Lincoln's presence at the assassination (and McKinley's later), but Vowell's book did not have any of the details about Lister, Bell and/or Bliss that I found so interesting.  Together these books make a nice pair.

A search on NoveList revealed a few good nonfiction readalikes: Ira Rutkow's James A. Garfield (a biography), Kenneth Ackerman's Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield (as much about the era as the assassination), and Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz (similar writing style; about the post-Civil War era).

For those interested in the subsequent McKinley assassination (which finally got the President some armed guards wherever he went), Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is widely considered to best the best narrative nonfiction on the topic.

As an author, Millard's richly detailed, yet not bogged down style, her engaging voice, and compelling plotting remind me of a few other authors:
If you have a reader who liked Destiny of the Republic but wants a fiction suggestion, I would try The March by E.L. Doctorow for its American History, multiple points of view, engaging voice and compelling plot.  Just like Destiny of the Republic, we know what is going to happen but we are still compelled to see how it turns out.

1 comment:

Donna said...

This was an excellent book. I am so glad that you recommended it to give it a wider audience. I'm recommending it to my book group at our next round of choices.