Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation skims across the surface of history by taking the reader on third-party tours of historic sites. The book focuses on the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but almost all of it is about Lincoln. (In my paperback, Lincoln gets 98 pages, Garfield gets 62, and McKinley gets 46.) Which may be fair--there are probably a lot more sites to visit related to Lincoln’s life and death than anyone else’s. But if you’re looking for a history lesson on any of these men, this is not the book for you.
Lincoln gets not only the most real estate in the book, but he also get the most sentiment. The author begins by catching a play at Ford’s Threatre and walking down to the Lincoln Memorial afterward. She admires the monument and reflects on the meaning of Lincoln’s words engraved on the walls. She draws comparisons to modern history and thinks about how Lincoln’s actions and death have influenced our world. From here, she gives a brief account of Lincoln’s assassination and the actions leading up to it, interspersed with conversations with tour guides. The tour guides seem to be authorities on the little patches of land that they represent, but Vowell doesn’t cite any other sources and doesn’t mention fact checking anything these first-name-only guides say.
Vowell does find some pretty obscure Lincoln sites to visit. She goes to his home, the place of his assassination, the house where John Wilkes Booth stopped after fleeing, even the prison where that house’s owner was condemned, and many other places. But the information she gleans is all pretty shallow. Even in the “I didn’t know that!” moments, I felt hesitation, like I needed to Google it before telling anyone else about it.
When she moves onto Garfield, the biggest point she makes is, “Who cares about Garfield?!” I actually just read a wonderful and in-depth biography of Garfield, so my response was a full-throated, “I do!” This was the most frustrating section for me because I have a higher-than-average knowledge and appreciation of Garfield after reading Destiny of the Republic, and Assassination Vacation brings no new information to the table. In fact, it’s so scant on details, that if you can already name Garfield’s assassin off the top of your head, then you probably don’t have much to learn here.
The Garfield section blends directly into the McKinley section so quickly I didn’t realize we were done with Garfield yet. I don’t know nearly as much about McKinley as I do about Garfield (or Lincoln), but I still thought this section was too light. Maybe the nation was so exhausted by the time McKinley was assassinated that they didn’t feel it necessary to dedicate a bunch of tourist sites to him? Maybe. That would explain why this section is so short and light.
Sarah Vowell can be very funny (and, yes, a bit humble-braggy), and some of the characters she encounters on the way are quite interesting. But this is neither a history book nor a biography, despite being shelved that way. This is a travelogue or a humorous travel memoir. It reveals a lot more about the author than about any of the presidents, and I think her larger point has more to do with the quirks of American culture anyway. I think if you know that going in, you’ll probably like this book--especially if you have a plane trip or beach vacation coming up. It’s light, at times silly, and very softly macabre, but it’s not historic.
Read my reviews on