Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicne and Murder of a President by Candice Millard, Random House Audio, September 2011, narrated by Paul Read, 9 hours, 47 minutes.

It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway

In this gripping account of the murder of James Garfield, 20th President of the US, Candice Millard uses the assassination as a means to examine the culture and politics of America in the 1880s. My guess is if you remember anything at all about Garfield from US history it is that he was assassinated by a “disappointed office seeker”. Millard clears that one up early; he was killed by a man who was seriously mentally ill, certainly way more than disappointed.
We are treated to an examination of the US society fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. In 1880 the politicians are divided between those who support the spoils system (winners get to name their friends and supporters to federal offices) and those who are looking to reform the system into a meritocracy. Garfield is among the latter. Garfield was a poor son of an Ohio farmer who had worked to get himself a classical education. After service in the Union Army where he rose in the ranks to become a general officer he has won the US presidency through an unlikely series of events. After reading this story I am convinced that Garfield could have been a great president if he’d lived. He was certainly a top notch guy – well rounded, courageous, ethical, funny, empathic and intelligent

Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, receives almost as much background as Garfield himself. The author recounts Guiteau’s descent into mental illness. His unsuccessful marriage, his inability to hold a job, his chronic indebtedness and his delusions are all laid out. The parts of this story about Guiteau are downright scary and read like a thriller as he slowly moves toward the assassination.

Millard has a great gift in her ability to describe what it was like in the 1880s. One of the things that got my attention was that the president of the US, everyday had office hours where anybody (!) could make an appointment and meet with him. You just came to the White House, sat in the anteroom and waited to be seen. No security, little or no screening – amazing and this was only 130 years ago! In fact Garfield had spoken to Guiteau at least twice prior to the assassination. Garfield was shot at the train station in DC where he had gone accompanied only by his friend the Secretary of State, to board a train to vacation with his family at the Jersey shore.

The medical drama ensues after Garfield is shot. Antiseptic techniques have not been accepted by the majority of US physicians. Joseph Lister attended the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia and described his success with asepsis; he was ridiculed by the most eminent surgeons in the US. Garfield’s wounds were survivable; the bullet he took did not hit any major organs. He was most probably infected by the medical staff who continually probed his wound with unsterilized hands and instruments. He lived for 10 weeks as he slowly and painfully succumbed to overwhelming infection. The battles that took place between the arrogant physician in charge of his care (William Bliss) and younger colleagues who understood wound infection are all documented. This tragedy plays out almost in slow motion and really is heart breaking.

My review really doesn’t do justice to how good this book is. In an effort not to make the review too long I’ve left out lots of things that add to the richness of this story. It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway. If you read history or even if you don’t, don’t miss this one!
I listened to the audio edition and Paul Read was a good narrator, although some of the female dialogue he read was breathy and a little strange.

I listened to a copy of this story I bought from audible.com

1 comment:

Zibilee said...

This does indeed sound fascinating, and I know so little about Garfield and that time period that it would probably be a really excellent and richly rewarding read for me. I think I am going to go for this one on audio too. It sounds too good to ignore! Fantastic review today!