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Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

1st August 2012

*I bought this book.

A brief timeline of my history with this book:

  • October 2011: Texas Book Fest. Hear author speak. Vow to buy hardback.
  • October 2011: Remember I’m broke.
  • November 2011 – April 2012: Think about the two stories Millard told off and on.
  • July 26, 2012: Remember how much I want to read this book.
  • July 26, 2012: Find out paperback is out Thursday afternoon!
  • July 26, 2012: Buy paperback Thursday evening.
  • July 26, 30, 2012: Read book in two sittings.

It was a book craving, I tell you. I had no control over my actions. So just what about Millard’s story set me on this 9-month voyage to this book? Let me share:

If you’re anything like me, the name “Garfield” is more often used as a way to describe a fat orange cartoon cat, as opposed to a former president of the United States. He wasn’t in office long, and I thought that about wrapped it up. Far. From it.

Garfield became president unwillingly. Slated to introduce one of the possible Republican candidates, John Sherman, at the Republican National Convention of 1880, Garfield spoke with such passion and knowledge that when he asked the crowd what they wanted, they responded: “We want Garfield!” To say he was surprised is an understatement. He had no aspirations to the White House, but after the most tensely-written ballot counting I’ve ever read, Garfield surpassed every other candidate, even the very popular Ulysses S. Grant. And there was a reason for that. Intelligent, hardworking, and disarmingly honest, Garfield was well respected as a Union soldier and politician. He worked as a janitor his first year of college, was asked to teach his second year, and ascended to the college presidency by the time he was 26. This was no ordinary man.

At the same time, Millard introduces Alexander Graham Bell, a frenzied inventor who wanted nothing more than to make real advancements as a teacher of the deaf. Frightened that the telephone would take over his life, Bell worked feverishly on other projects until the president’s assassination, when his penetrating focus turned to a device to find the bullet in the president’s ravaged body – the bullet put there by Charles Guiteau. Garfield suffered terribly, and his death likely could have been avoided. Doctors at the time, though, were unwilling to listen to the advances of science, and Garfield died, his body riddled with abscesses.

Guiteau, too, is interesting, though a much less striking figure than either of the other men. Believing God had ordained him for something special, Guiteau flitted from a free-love colony (where none of the women were interested) to law school and then to a life of evangelism. None worked out well as Guiteau’s speeches and writing were very often hobbled together from others’ work. He regularly skipped out of boarding house bills and any other bills, putting enough money down to gain trust and then leaving the sum. His sister tried to institutionalize him, but Guiteau left town before she could get him to the doctor.

The intersection of these three men’s lives, however, is the real focus of and draw of Millard’s book. Destiny of the Republic isn’t intended to be a true biography of any of them. Instead, she sets the stage for the assassination. The United States was, at that time, built on the spoils system, and it was fascinating to read that hundreds of people poured into the White House day after day, requesting favors and positions from the president. Guiteau was one of them, believing that his previous support for Garfield won him the election and that he was owed a consulship. The audacity and the brazenness of Guiteau and others was shocking, as was the lack of official protection for a president, only a few decades after Lincoln was killed.

Though horrific, Garfield’s death, Millard says, was a healing balm to a nation still torn from war, drawing Northerner and Southerner as well as pioneer to pull together and hope and pray for Garfield’s survival. That unity is no more evident than when Garfield’s train made its way to the seashore, his last request before dying. Over 2,000 people laid train tracks, and a train car was modified for his comfort. When, however, the train could not make it up a hill, hundreds of men went to work, pushing the president’s train up the hill and to the place where he would eventually die. No matter how short his term, that is an inspiring politician.

Eminently readable and filled with well-crafted research, Destiny of the Republic is a must-read for anyone who enjoys true crime, historical fiction and/or nonfiction, and American history.

Check out other opinions on Goodreads. Buy your copy from Barnes & Noble here.

Texas Book Festival 2011

25th October 2011


Ahh. I am exhausted (thus no post yesterday), but this weekend was fantastic. I was in Austin for the Texas Book Festival. At lunch, I met up with Cassandra from Indie Reader Houston and JT of A Pretty Book, as well as my bff Sommer, and my mom, and I think we all ended up having a pretty great day.

I was able to attend 5 panels, which was really great, and this year, I felt much less guilty about leaving one early and ducking into another a bit late. The schedule is chock full of good stuff, so that’s expected. Here’s a rundown of the panels I sat in on:

Sarah Dessen and Libba Bray:

These two are mainly young adult authors. Sommer and my mom are big fans, so I followed them over. They were both funny, but there wasn’t anything that really pulled me in. The moderator let them do a lot of talking, so it was a bit of “rah rah, we love each other.” Since I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, JT and I ran over to another panel.

Chad Harbach, Justin Torres, and Amy Waldman:

These three debut authors have received a lot of critical acclaim, so this panel was devoted to this sort of phenomenon. There was nothing really all that interesting. I think all three are a bit shocked, so there was a lot of: “What do you think of all of this attention?” “Wow. It’s amazing.” Eh. I expected a bit more, but honestly, the panel is very much crafted by the moderator. If the moderator doesn’t introduce anything new, then there isn’t a lot of hope for something new.

Andy Borowitz:

 

Oh. My. Gosh. You guys are negligent. Why have you all not introduced me to The Borowitz Report before now? He talked about his new book, The 50 Funniest American Writers, a compilation that I can’t wait to get my hands on. Then when I got back to the hotel I laughed until I cried reading his Twitter feed.

However, my favorite panel of the day was the first one I went to with my mom. She and I also had great luck when we stumbled upon our favorite panel last year. It’s amazing the books and information you stumble upon at the festival:

Candice Millard:

 

President Garfield. Chester Arthur. These are names I vaguely knew but was never all that interested in…until Candice Millard showed me the error of my ways.

Her book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President is one I cannot wait to crack open. I never had any idea what an impressive figure Garfield was, a poor young man who vaulted himself, through careful study, into the presidency of a university; a man not interested in the presidency but voted into office by Americans impressed with him; a man shot by a delusional supporter who went on to live in immense pain for three months.

Millard’s passion for her subject matter was incredibly persuasive and honestly reminded me of myself when I get on my obscure little tangents. She was an impressive speaker who obviously knew how to make history interesting.

I’ll leave you with the moment that brought tears to my eyes. President Garfield knew he was dying and requested to see the sea once more. A wealthy man offered up his New Jersey beachfront house, and train tracks were laid to its location. However, the train would not go up the final hill, and bystanders along the way lifted Garfield’s train car, carrying him all the way to the property. Amazing.

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The weekend was, as always, wonderful and bookish. This was my 3rd annual trip to the Book Festival, and I thank everyone involved who makes it such a fantastic event that supports libraries and literacy programs.

Plus I picked up some great posters from past festivals for my classroom for $5 a piece. Score!

Hope all those involved in the Readathon had a great time.