Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is obsessed with history. Also: death. Where does a person with these two intertwined fascinations go on vacation? The answer to that question turns out to be some pretty surprising places.

Vowell's sense of humor and wit keep her travelogue Assassination Vacation from reading like a college textbook on the subject of Presidential assassinations

Part travel memoir, part history, and with a keen eye for the ridiculous (including a self-awareness of her own almost religious zeal for the subject), Vowel's book manages to look into the history of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley in such a way that keeps you on your toes.

Vowell is a native of Montana, but you’d never know it the way she clings to the East Coast. She doesn’t drive (phobia), so she considers one of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s greater faults to be “that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a metro stop.” In many ways, Vowell is herself a character as interesting to read about as the historical figures she portrays with such detail. 

Most of Vowell’s trips are taken in the company of her sister and four-year-old nephew, who make the perfect foil for her gruesome obsessions, but Vowell drags an assortment of friends and family from Florida to upstate New York and back again as she reaches deep into the hidden history of not just these three assassinated presidents, but the men responsible for the assassinations and the world they occurred in. She takes the reader beyond the one-sentence biographies and highlights, to what we really care about:  sex, death, and insanity.

The book follows only the loosest of “vacation” itineraries. We may start at Ford’s Theater, following the trail of John Wilkes Booth as he flees from his murder of Lincoln, but before we end we have visited not just Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home, where Booth was headed and was eventually killed, but Secretary of State Seward’s house, the Saxman village in Ketchikan Alaska, office of the medical examiner performing Lincoln’s autopsy, the Dry Tortugas… all of which may sound scattered and confusing, but which Vowell skillfully weaves into a cohesive and compelling storyline. 

It is Vowell’s stream-of-consciousness style and meandering side trips where the real meat of the stories are to be found – taking us from Charles Guiteau, to a free love commune, to the teapot in her kitchen; from William McKinley to the imperialistic art for the Pan-American Exhibition of 1901, to Teddy Roosevelt’s wild ride down the mountain to take the oath of office. Though, even Vowell has difficulties pulling up interesting material on McKinley -- portions on the topic of the 25th president and his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, are the shortest of the book.

If you have the chance, you should definitely try this as an audio book – even if you think you don’t like books on audio, this one might just change your mind. Vowell narrates her story, and her voice will be familiar to you. She’s a regular NPR contributor, as well as having voiced a character in Disney’s The Incredibles – the daughter Violet. Vowell’s girlish voice detailing the gore of McKinley’s stomach wound or relating the coroner’s description of weighing Lincoln’s brain mass is surprisingly charming. And rather than read quotes from others, Vowell chooses to invite a cast of friends and comedians to play the roles – Stephen King, Jon Stewart, and Conan O’Brian, among many, many others. If you have a car trip coming up, I highly recommend checking it out.

About the Author

Diana Hyle

Diana Hyle is a reference librarian at the Plaza Branch and leader of the Barista's Book Group.