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. . . . 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. (Amazon)
Review by Jessica Day George - Young Adult & Middle Grade Writer
Don’t normally like nonfiction? Not really that interested in the lives of presidential assassins?
Sarah Vowell (a popular commentator on NPR and the voice of Violet in PIXAR’s THE INCREDIBLES), is not only a fount of strange American history, but she is also a fabulous and sublimely humorous writer. She takes you on a wild ride through America to search down the origins and stories of everyone who ever shot a president . . . and boy howdy are some of their stories odd! She ties it all together beautifully, organically moving from one episode to the next, and physically visiting the sites specific to the different assassins, including the Oneida Ceramics Factory, which was founded by a 19th century sex cult—No, REALLY! She defies the elements and her own fear of boats and dying to take a ship out to the former island prison were one of the Lincoln conspirators was incarcerated. She visits the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, where she almost makes the tour guide cry by pointing out that she is part Cherokee. In short, she leaves no stone unturned in her search for facts, ALL the facts, mind you, about anyone who ever shot a United States president! She frequently drags along her twin sister and young nephew, as well as various friends, and when she doesn’t, she has a tendency to hilariously overshare with other hapless tourists and tour guides. I have read this book a couple of times, and every time my face and stomach hurt from laughing, I have tears streaming down my face, but at the same time I feel so much smarter.
Like all Vowell’s books (and all are good, might I add) it is available as an audiobook, read by the author. Since she is primarily a radio personality you can be sure that the audiobook is amazing. I have only listened to snippets of this one, but my husband and sister have both listened to it and loved it. So if you’re an audiobook or NPR fan, I would recommend that you experience the book this way. Vowell’s voice is distinctive, and she brings the whole thing hilariously to life. If you, like me, are not an audiobook person, then the paper copy will do you just fine. Her writing is excellent, her research is impeccable, and the book is an absolute gem. I think it’s my favorite of hers, but it’s really hard to say. But if you’ve never read a book by Sarah Vowell, this is the best one to start with, but that’s just my opinion!
Market: adult nonfiction (but perfectly suitable for teens)
Violence: It’s about assassinations, but nothing graphic that you wouldn’t find in a textbook.
Sensuality: One of the assassins was briefly involved in the Oneida group, practitioners of “free love.” However, it’s not described graphically- in fact, she uses the same euphemisms the group themselves used, hilariously.
Adult themes: Assassination, free love, murder, betrayal of one’s country- It’s American history, folks!