Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell

I liked this; I did not love it. It was a quick, engaging read, and I recognize in Vowell's particular brand of tourism a lot of the ways in which I travel, which is to say with one eye always on the lookout for plaques, brown road signs, and other signals of quirky history.

Vowell's heavy-handed emphasis on current events as a backdrop to the historical sites she visits was, for me, more intrusive than insightful. She really, really, really hates President George W. Bush and, for that matter, the entire Republican party after about the turn of the last century. Really hates them. Her anger - however comedically phrased - got in the way of her basically good-natured and eager explorations.

From a museum perspective, she did raise some incredibly interesting points, which can be summed up by this selection, on page 54 of my edition:
A lot of house tours are about the thingness of things. For instance, when one visits Jefferson Davis's White House of the Confederacy in Richmond one learns that his bed was so short because most people back then slept sitting up; one doesn't hear much about how on earth Davis could sleep at all given the fact that he was waging a war to keep human beings enslaved. And when one visits Andrew Jackson's house in Nashville, one is more likely to hear about the painstaking restoration of the wallpaper and nothing much about how Jackson's policies sent one's Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears.
In short, Vowell criticizes many museums and historic sites for missing the big picture: the humanity of their stories. She reserves particular ire for historical sites and historians who ignore figures she considers evil or deranged in favor of presenting a rosier picture - the Samuel Mudd House, for example, and its emphasis on Mudd's favorite recipes rather than his alleged role in conspiring to assassinate Lincoln.

She herself is obsessed with a particular strain of the human story - the assassination of presidents - and finds endlessly inventive ways to track down small pieces of the story. Her travels illustrate the interesting dichotomy in lives lived, and often present a good/bad/ugly of historical interpretation.

I would recommend it as a fun, entertaining read, but not as anything much deeper, unfortunately, because there's a very interesting thread of story that she touches on from time to time but ultimately abandons in favor of quips and rants against the then-current Republican administration.

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