Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stirring History

"It just goes to show you really can't judge a book by its cover."

One of my book club friends made this astute observation during our discussion of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I have to admit when I heard our book club pick was a non-fiction based on the assassination on President James Garfield, I was not terribly enthused. Maybe it was the book cover. Dark, somber hues. The presidential portrait. Courier font. My trepidation was quickly erased once I began to read.

Ms. Millard enlivens the facts surrounding the death of our 20th president by weaving themes of politics, medicine and technology. The book reads not only as a compelling historical narrative, but also as a social commentary of a time period which could and probably has slipped through the cracks of our collective memories.

I won't deny I knew almost nothing about Garfield before started reading this book. But now I know the man was a bit amazing. I'd put him up there with Lincoln. His modest upbringing, stemming from tragedy at an early age, gave rise to a brilliant man with a fervent work ethic and studious habits. Success came early. Who doesn't love that American story? Garfield was so respected for his mind and charisma, he practically fell into politics and wasn't even looking to become the leader of our country. And while his political career might've been somewhat accidental, he was ingenious in dealing with his political opponents of any ideology–of which there were a few.

The book details the assassination attempt, which did not kill Garfield immediately. We get a sense of the real tragedy of the event: Garfield's medical treatment and his suffering. Many interesting dynamics were taking place during this time. Alexander Graham Bell was busy inventing and had a machine which he was certain would help identify the bullet's presence in the President. Anti-sepsis theories were only accepted by a handful of doctors. So plenty of patients were dying from infections. This would eventually take Garfield, but not without him fighting.

Throughout the book, Garfield's character is depicted as jovial, compassionate, sharp-minded, and ambitious. (The book is careful to point out Garfield's imperfections as well–he was human.) We are privy to enjoy many of his profound quotes throughout the read, giving us even more insight into his state of mind. One of my favorites, which may explain his popularity: "The chief duty of the government is to keep the peace and stand out of the sunshine of the people." A few politicians might do good to read this book.

Upon his death, an entire nation mourned woefully–maybe more woefully than the death of Abe Lincoln which had just taken place less than twenty years prior with a nation very divided. Garfield always set out to do good–the right thing, but his career was cut short. And while we wonder what he might've accomplished if he would lived longer, maybe his unfortunate death had an important
consequence : it brought together a grieving nation (Northerners and Southerners) as wounds from the Civil War were just beginning to heal.

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