Category Archives: Non-Fiction (History)

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

A few years ago, I joined a musical theatre group. The first show I was involved in was a “concert” – a selection of songs from a variety of shows, all on a similar theme – with the theme “the darker side of musicals”. There were several songs from the Sondheim show “Assassins,” including “The Ballad of Guiteau”.

To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Guiteau (or Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley). I vaguely knew about Garfield, but only as one of the list – an assassinated president, or one of the Reconstruction presidents; someone to be recited, not someone to be learned. We spent almost no time on the late 19th century in my history classes in high school, and what we did learn was the social changes – things like yellow journalism or the labor safety reforms. Reconstruction went from Andrew Johnson to the Civil Rights movement with hardly a stop in between.

But the song is interesting, and I wanted to know how accurate it was. So I went on Wikipedia, read a bit, got even more interested, and heard about this book. Of course, Reconstruction-era American politics is not hugely popular or available in the UK. Luckily, my mom was also interested and bought it for our joint Kindle account.

I came away from this book with three overwhelming conclusions. First, Guiteau was certifiable and should have been institutionalised. I understand why he was executed. But there’s not a chance that he understood the moral implications of what he did. He transformed single, isolated events into a divine mandate, and he genuinely believed that other people – people like Chester Arthur (the vice president) and General Sherman (of the march to the sea), whom he’d never met – would back him up.

Second, Garfield was amazing. He was incredibly intelligent, and once he got into the habit of learning (which did take him a while), he was unstoppable. He started off in nearly devastating poverty, and was president of his alma mater by the time he was 25. He was a family man – incredibly close to his mother [his father died when he was under the age of 2] and siblings, increasingly devoted to his wife, and an involved father. He didn’t want to be president – he didn’t even really want to be in politics, but saw it as the best way that he could make a difference – but when it was pushed on him, he did as much as he could to be the best president he could be while still staying true to his own values and ideals. Even when he was dying, he was unselfish: telling the doctors that they were doing a good job, telling his wife that he wasn’t really in pain, doing what he could to make even his death not about him.

Third, Doctor Bliss was almost completely responsible for Garfield’s death. Guiteau was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong when he said that he was responsible for the shooting but not the death. Bliss had an undeserved sense of entitlement that led to him claiming sole responsibility for Garfield’s care, even to the extent of keeping his family away. He put his own reputation and desires above the care of his patient, and that is just wrong no matter what year it is. I don’t care that the medical convention at the time was anti-antisepsis, or that hospitals weren’t acceptable/accessible for anyone other than the indigent. This is the President of the United States. GET A SECOND OPINION. When the man’s personal doctor comes in? LET HIM COME IN. When Alexander Graham Bell comes in with his device to locate the bullet? LET HIM LOCATE THE BULLET – instead of telling him where to look and not allowing him to look anywhere else in the body (even as a control point! And had Garfield on a metal-spring mattress when Bell is using a metal detector!) The anti-antisepsis stuff I can forgive, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time, but the fact that he refused to acknowledge that septicemia had set in? The fact that he blatantly lied in all his press releases saying that the president was fine? And the fact that he refused to allow any sort of dissent for his opinion even after Lucretia Garfield said publicly that she’d never asked him to be her husband’s doctor? That’s delusion of an entirely different kind than Guiteau’s, and was much more devastating to Garfield.

Those were my main conclusions, but there was a lot else in the book that I found new and interesting. (I was coming in with almost no knowledge, so pretty much everything was new and interesting.) I didn’t know much about the Republican party post-Civil War, so I didn’t know much about Conkling and the spoils system. I ended up being a bit proud of Chester Arthur for breaking free of Conkling’s hold and carrying on with Garfield’s civil service reforms – and I must admit that I gave a bit of an evil laugh when Conkling lost his seat through his own hubris.

I also didn’t know anything about the reaction to Garfield’s death. In the book, the way it comes across – and I certainly hope that this is accurate – is that Garfield was personable enough and popular enough with all groups of people that the announcement of his death affected everyone – from freed black people to die-hard southerners to political rivals – and brought them closer as a nation. People didn’t riot against each other; they may have banded together against Guiteau but society didn’t fracture. Emotionally reuniting the country is something that Garfield may have been able to do while living – he was certainly making progress at it – and something that was sadly achieved by his death.

As for the book itself, it was a very quick read – Millard makes it entertaining as well as informative, and there’s nothing in it that can be considered dry or unnecessary. It seemed a bit short to me, but that could be because I’m also reading a book about the history of the Mediterranean, and I’m only 20% through it after almost six weeks. (That one is verrrrrry long and dense.) It didn’t feel incomplete; it just went very quickly and I still want to know more. This is especially surprising because I generally don’t care about 19th century politics – but Garfield-the-person was so interesting to me that I want to know him better. [I’m satisfied with my level of knowledge of Guiteau now though. *shudder*]

To sum up: I would recommend this book, whether you’re already interested in the time period or not. Also, give “The Ballad of Guiteau” a listen and be amazed at Sondheim’s writing and research (as well as Millard’s).

….now to find something similar about Czolgosz and McKinley…..

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Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

There’s a bit of trend right now of explaining complex and lengthy topics using a specific number of short examples. I was first aware of it from “A History of the World in 100 Objects” where one of the British Museum curators picked 100 items from the BM’s collection that he felt best represented the scope of world history. (It’s a great podcast, and I learned a lot about non-European history while listening to it. It’s still available for download from the BBC, too.) Since then, I’ve seen several other “history of x in x objects” things, including a podcast called “Shakespeare’s Restless World” which is basically “The History of Shakespeare’s London in 20 Objects” or however long it ends up being.

And there’s this, The Story of English in 100 Words, which basically does the same thing as AHOTW, but with the English language in place of world history and with words instead of objects. David Crystal starts at the very beginning – or one of the recorded beginnings – of language in the British Isles, with what we know of Celtic, and goes through the words until he reaches the twenty-first century and “twittersphere”.

The most interesting thing about this book, besides just the etymological information about the words (“warrant” and “guarantee” share a ultimate derivation, but entered English at different times, for example) is its mix of cultural history and etymology. There’s history on the individual words, sure, but a lot of the words are picked not for themselves, but for the type of word they are. This word is from Church Latin, for example, and here are some of the other words that came in about the same time and for the same reasons. This word has shifted meaning for cultural and social reasons, and here are some other examples of how this happens. It’s not just a history of these particular words; it’s a history of how English has worked over the years.

Of course, with a combination of cultural history, linguistic history, and specific etymologies, there are only two ways you can go: ridiculously dense or skimming over the top. This book chooses the latter option. It’s definitely the right choice, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the lack of depth in some entries. There were times when I wanted etymology but got history, or wanted history but got etymology. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

If you like bite-sized history, if you like words and stories and stories about words, if you are at all interested in English, this book is a good gateway. An introduction to the craziness that is English grammar and orthography, and the way that people have treated both of them over the years.

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Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson

I have gone back and forth on Erik Larson. I mean, I loved Devil in the White City, found In the Garden of Beasts captivating but not quite as much of a page-turner, and haven’t yet gotten through the Crippen/Marconi book.

But Isaac’s Storm….Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read a third of before I could even think about putting it down. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read instead of gaming. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I devoured.

One of the things that Erik Larson does very, very well is parallel stories. Devil in the White City paralleled the building of the White City (and the careers/lives of those involved) with the life of H.H. Holmes. Isaac’s Storm parallels the life and career of Isaac Cline – tangled up with the history of the Weather Service – with the hurricane of 1900. All the different variables are there – the belief that a hurricane would never come through the Gulf, the insistence that predicting a hurricane would cause panic, the actual meteorological factors. What’s absolutely fantastic is the way that he uses the storm as a character without ever anthropomorphising it. Every few chapters track the storm on its progress through the Atlantic, past ships and islands – but it’s never treated as a being, it’s never humanised.

It was a devastating storm, the deadliest storm in American history. No one in Galveston knew that it was coming; no one knew to prepare. Petty jealousies and pride, plus lack of knowledge, kept anyone from reading the signs correctly. That was, in retrospect, one of the most frustrating things – the Cubans, for example, knew that it was a strong hurricane, and predicted that it would head to Texas, but the US Weather Service refused to acknowledge their warnings, because why would people who’ve lived in the path of tropical storms for their entire existence know anything about tropical storms?

The only thing that was teased and not carried through was the relationship between Joseph and Isaac Cline. They were, at the time of the hurricane, fairly close and living together. Within a few years, though, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence, or that they’d ever been brothers. What happened between them?  Larson never tells us. He hints at it, he references the estrangement, but he never goes into details. He may not have them – but if he doesn’t, it’s not quite fair that he teases it so much throughout.

But that’s the only fault I have to find with it. It got me interested in meteorology again, at least for the time I was reading. It got me interested in Texas history, in weather history, in disaster history. I was absolutely captivated throughout.

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Mr. Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, by Kate Colquhoun

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the various historical non-fiction books that I’ve been reading in the last year or so is how smoothly they integrate their research into their story. There have been occasional points where things get bogged down in the details, but overall, I feel like I’ve experienced the story and the time period instead of just learning about it.

Mr. Briggs’ Hat is no exception to this. Certainly the first half of the book, detailing the discovery of the murder and the investigation, is incredibly gripping. (I also benefited slightly from having relatively recently both read and watched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: there are a couple of familiar names amongst the detectives. [Wow, could I use any more adverbs there?]) I was incredibly impressed at the efforts put in to capture Muller; the detectives not only combed the streets of London for evidence, but took two witnesses to New York to help identify and extradite him.

The second half of the book, while no less interesting, does get more into the political layers, implications, and ramifications of the trial. Once they’ve decided that Muller is the culprit (based on quite a lot of circumstantial evidence, which isn’t quite as tenuous as it sounds to modern ears), things in 1864 get intricate. There’s the necessity of extradition from New York, complicated by the already fraught tensions between the American and British government and populace because of the (US) Civil War. There’s the fact that Muller is German, and Prussia was making moves toward German unification that included aggression toward Denmark (a UK-sympathetic country, due to the Princess of Wales being Danish). And then there’s the ongoing debate about suitable punishment for murder: capital punishment or lifetime with hard labour? Public or private execution?

And that doesn’t even get into the difficulties with the case itself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the murder (who had been threatening Briggs about a loan, who were the other two men supposedly in the carriage with him), and the witnesses on both sides aren’t exactly stellar characters. But despite all the confusing details with the case, it’s never questioned that Muller is the culprit.

And, despite the hook of the murder case itself, the book isn’t really “about” that. It’s about the political and social forces that collided within the scope of the investigation and trial – without getting at all bogged down into socio-political commentary. It paints a picture of the relatively new field of professional detection, and the constantly changing world of public opinion when it comes to crime and punishment. Colquhoun weaves all the threads together so deftly that sometimes it is like being back in 1864. Hovering over it a bit, not always actually walking the streets, but that’s the benefit of history – you know how things turned out, so you don’t have to deal with the uncertainty that the “locals” would have felt. (….now I think I need to read more Ian Mortimer……)

It’s also increased my “want-to-research” list quite substantially…..not a bad thing.

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Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

 

Did you ever notice that once you become aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere? When I was dancing salsa, I noticed every ad for dance classes/studios/clubs in the city – new ones as well as ones that had clearly been around for years. And I’ve had that experience with Operation Mincemeat, as well.

I’ve had the book for a few weeks, and had seen it (and thought about reading it) for months.  It’s an absolutely brilliant book, delineating an amazingly detailed espionage plan critical to the invasion of Sicily. They took a dead body – an indigent Welshman who died in London – created a new, military identity for him, and set him adrift where he’d be found by Spanish Nazi sympathizers. The letters in his briefcase were intended to make Hitler think that Sicily, the obvious target for a foothold in southern Europe, was not the actual target. And it actually worked.

It almost didn’t work. Things that were supposed to go perfectly smoothly didn’t. The body was picked up in the right place, but given to the slightly wrong people. A few important people (like Goering) wondered privately if the information was actually a plant (which, of course, it was). But ultimately, the ruse worked, and the invasion of Sicily was a success.

Ben Macintyre’s book is almost completely absorbing. It’s full of details and references, but it never feels like an infodump and never really like name-dropping. The references are actually explained, and even followed up on. The story, and plan, itself is compelling without being sensationalised (not that it needs to be). The famous names are relevant (Ian Fleming was a member of staff who helped with the backstory; Eisenhower and other generals played an active role, either by approving the operation or by actually contributing details).

One of the awesome parts of Operation Mincemeat is that, while the operation itself was fairly unusual, the purpose of it – massive misdirection – was not. For the invasion of Sicily alone, Mincemeat was one of at least three misdirection operations, including sabotage in Greece and Sardinia, and an attempt to make the Germans think that the initial landing site was only a preliminary and the main attack was coming later, elsewhere. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Allied spy network, especially all of the fictional agents and double agents that were running. The mental acuity of the (real-life) spies involved had to be immense to keep track of all the plots and deals and personalities that they created. And yet Macintyre is able to impress without glorifying the danger that everyone involved was in.

Which leads me to my “hey, I just learned about that!” moment from this book: Agent Garbo.  He was a critical part of Mincemeat (….every part of Mincemeat was critical….) so Macintyre spends a bit of time on him and his background. This guy was rabidly anti-Nazi, and offered himself as a spy to the Allies several times, being turned down each time. So he decided to cut out the middle man, and started his own disinformation feed to the Nazis in Spain. He hid in Portugal, but made his German handlers think he was in England. Before too long, the British codebreakers picked up on his communications and realised how valuable he could be.  He served the Allies officially for the rest of the war.

And now there’s a documentary about him. One of the people I follow on Twitter linked to the trailer on iTunes earlier today – it’s just been released in the US. Agent Garbo was the most interesting supplemental character for me in Operation Mincemeat, so the documentary is totally on my to-be-watched list now.

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A Voice in the Box, by Bob Edwards

I grew up with Bob Edwards on Morning Edition. We were an NPR family, so much so that I didn’t even know that there were other radio stations until an embarrassingly old age. My sister and I, if we didn’t wake up to taped Broadway soundtracks, woke up to Morning Edition, and it was always playing downstairs as we had breakfast and got ready for the day. Bob Edwards was the voice of my morning until I became a teenager and “rebelled” by switching my clock radio to the oldies station, and then to the non-threatening pop station.

I was in Slovakia, or about to be, when Bob Edwards left Morning Edition. It was a shock (for him as well), and now when I happen to hear Morning Edition, it feels familiar but different, like going back to the house you grew up in when someone else is living there. But when I happen to catch Bob Edwards’s “new” show, it instantly transports me back to the kitchen in my childhood home.

A Voice in the Box is Bob Edwards’s memoir of his time in radio, going back to his childhood. I would hesitate to call it an autobiography, because it’s not particularly detailed about his personal life. Not that his life outside work isn’t mentioned – it’s just much more about his career. Anyone looking for scandal and salaciousness is going to be disappointed. But Bob Edwards fans, and public radio fans, are not generally the type of people who look for scandal and salaciousness.

It felt, more than anything, like a Bob Edwards interview….with Bob Edwards. Each chapter could have been a prompt with his responses. There are a lot of famous names (some more famous than others, depending on your field of expertise) but it was very conversational, very much “regular guy gets to meet lots of people at his job”. And I wasn’t even as interested in the “famous people” mentions as much as I was the more backstage stuff at NPR. I once interviewed for a job at NPR, and it’s fascinating to think of what might-have-been if I’d  gotten it. (It involves me being a lot more knowledgeable about US politics than I am at the moment. Also being able to recognize Nina Totenberg if I met her on the street.)

Like I said above, I grew up with NPR, so it was particularly interesting for me to read about its early days. To me, it’s always been sort of “the establishment” – but that’s not always been the case for the wider world. Morning Edition struggled to get started. Funding has always been tricky, especially under Republican-controlled Congresses. And then there was the firing, six months before the 25th anniversary of Morning Edition, with no explanation (still).

Obviously, it’s not a memoir that’s going to appeal to those who aren’t already fans of public radio. Most of the background and references are assumed knowledge, and if you don’t hear Bob Edwards’s voice in your head, you’re missing out on some level. But if you are – if for you, as for me, Bob Edwards is the voice of the morning and nothing else sounds quite right, or you can’t quite understand why anyone would have the Today show on when they could have Morning Edition – then you will appreciate this book and its look back into the voice that defined my mornings as a child.

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