book review: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell


If you are an American, you started learning about American history in first grade. You  learn about the American Revolution, the presidents, Lincoln freed the slaves….blah blah blah.  In high school , you have to learn about the Bill of Rights, and how the founding fathers met to  determine what it should be. You  might have seen paintings depicting battles.  You got brief phrases (“Remember the Maine”), but the way we teach history in the USA is  that we teach wars, and the  chronology of presidents.  In high school, I learned a bit about the transcendentalists, and even (because of my personal interests) the Oneida community in Ithaca, New York, which developed  Oneida silver and Coates & Clark thread. I had to pass a constitution test to graduate high school, and college.

When I was in grad school, I took a course in the economic history of the USA:  the westward expansion, and the taking of Native American lands  with the justification that they were not putting their lands to the best economic use. I learned about the  canal system, for transport,and the  stewardship of lands for national parks.   But I didn’t get an in depth history. How could you? Nobody has the time to teach anything  except what  you’d be questioned about on Jeopardy or playing trivia games at bars.

Yet, because we don’t know our history, and because our neighbors are easily swayed, as Santayana said, “…we are condemned to repeat it.”

I just  read William O. Douglas’  autobiography, Go East, Young Man, and got a great insight into  economic and political history during FDR’s time,  and was pleasantly surprised by Sarah Vowell’s book.

Having heard her on Ira Glass’ This American Life, I found her voice  captivating.  She is a mass of neurosis and phobias, but a gifted teller of tales. In fact, she is a gifted researcher.

The book is about her quest to learn about the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, and, along the way, we learn, also, about their assassins and their families, times, and what influenced them to kill these leaders.

Leon Czolgosz, who shot McKinley, said of the war in the Philippines, that, “It does not harmonize with the teachings in our public schools about our flag…”  Interesting. We could have said that about our wars in Iraq…or Viet Nam….

Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon McKinley’s death, loved war and battle.  Vowell details the history surrounding what we call the  Spanish American War, and the annexation of the Philippines.  She  includes information on  much of the social goings on at the time of these murders.

Vowell is also  part Native American, and understands the impact that presidential decisions have had on her family.

Your gut reaction is, as one of her friends put it when she told a him that she was writing about the McKinley administration, might be, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?” Her response:  “Oh, I don’t know…maybe because we seem to be reliving  it?”

Another good book about American history  is Dee Brown’s book of the early 1970’s, Bury my Heart At Wounded Knee, but  that is a very sad book.  Sarah Vowell’s book, if not  funny, is amusing, ironic, and really helps us to understand the dynamics of the moment.  It was published in 2005.  Check for it in used books stores, and then if you can’t find it, try Amazon.com

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