Friday, December 16, 2011

Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard

Part biography, part true crime, and part science, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard is a book in the vein of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Millard follows multiple lives as they converge into a life-changing event for all and then splinter off again on individual paths.

Our twentieth president, James A. Garfield, was shot in a Washington D.C. train station on July 2, 1881 by Charles Guiteau. Only four months into office, Garfield had begun to show great promise as president: he championed civil rights 80 years before they became a reality and he stood up to political corruption. He had a Cinderella story, if there ever was one, having lived as a child in poverty only to rise to become a college president, congressman, and eventual U.S. president (interestingly, an office he did not actively seek). When he finally succumbed to death on September 19, he was beloved by Americans, both Northern and Southern-- a tough feat in the post-Civil War era. This would be a cut-and-dry book about his assassination and assassin if Garfield had died because of his gunshot wound, but, instead he suffered months of agonizing medical care administered by Dr. D.W. Bliss, who some might actually fault for the president's death. Many American physicians, including Bliss, had yet to adopt the sterilizing procedures introduced by Dr. Joseph Lister. Meanwhile, an unlikely protagonist emerges in Alexander Graham Bell, who fervently attempts to help the wounded president by inventing a metal detector of sorts in order to locate the bullet in his body.

The rare thing that comes out in this book is that the president and the inventor are infinitely more interesting than the killer(s?). As a society I think we tend to dwell on the perpetrator more than the victim, shadowing the life with the death. Garfield's and Bell's lives and accomplishments are much more interesting and impressive than Guiteau or Bliss could ever hope. Reading about the out-pouring of support for Garfield and the first family reminded me of the months following 9/11 and how people pulled together. Even vice-president Chester Arthur stepped up when the time came; citizens and colleagues alike were weary of his impending administration, but he managed to surprise people. It appears that Garfield had the ability to bring the best out in people, except, of course for his assassin and doctor.

Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard
Find it in the Catalog!