Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard jumped to the head of my reading queue. It’s the story of James Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau in 1881 and, in particular, the grotesquely bad medical care Garfield received after he was shot, which had as much to do with his death as the bullet from Guiteau’s gun.
It’s an interesting little story, although maybe not quite interesting enough for an entire book. A few points:
- Garfield’s life story was every bit as inspiring as Lincoln’s — born in a log cabin; lost his father at an early age; studied relentlessly to better himself; became a successful general in the Civil War despite having no military training; elected president in 1880 despite trying his best not to be nominated, then refusing to campaign…. His problem is that he ended up serving as president for only a few months, and the big national issue of his time was not the survival of the union but civil service reform. Who cares? So now he’s lost in the backwaters of history. Millard tries hard to make us feel his greatness, but really, the best we can do is agree that he was a helluva guy.
- Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln was his secretary of war. He was nearby when his father was shot at Ford’s theater. He was nearby when Garfield was shot at the Washington train station. He was with McKinley when he was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901. This caused him to have second thoughts about accepting later invitations to presidential events.
- We learned in school that Guiteau was a “disappointed office seeker.” But the key element to Guiteau’s character was that he was absolutely bonkers. The assassination theme of the book is relevant to Pontiff, but in novels characters need comprehensible motivations. Being absolutely bonkers works in real life, but not in fiction. And being a helluva guy doesn’t really work for the victim; you need something more than that to keep the reader interested.