“One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes.
And so we begin our journey down the Assassination Vacation rabbit hole that is Sarah Vowell’s obsession with presidents who were assassinated. She’s determined to go on a road trip and to immerse herself in the macabre details that were a part of what made America the country it is today. Sarah Vowell, a self-confessed weirdo, is joined on some of her trip by her patient sister and her nephew who might just be taking a little too much after her.
I should preface all this by saying that I’m already a fan of Sarah Vowell’s work. I loved her discussion about Hawaii and its place in America, so when I found out she had written a book that would combine my loves of quirkiness, true crime, and history… I just had to have it.
True to form, Sarah Vowell didn’t disappoint. Assassination Vacation is runs the gamut of road trips, combining both the feeling of a (mild) adventure as well as letting us know about the eccentricities that were part and parcel of presidential life at the time. I had no idea before I picked up this novel how common it was for president to be assassinated. In fact, I only knew about Lincoln and sometimes I would forget that he had been assassinated (come on, guys. I’m Canadian. I didn’t have to learn this stuff).
I came into this novel at the perfect time, right when I was playing Bioshock Infinite and was trying to figure out who John Wilkes Booth was without resorting to Wikipedia (again. Canadian. I have no reason to know this). While history texts can sometimes be dry or a little hard to get into, that’s never been the case when it comes to Sarah Vowell. With a healthy dose of humour and some insight into the way that her brain works, I truly felt like I was taking the Assassination Vacation along with her.
Together, Sarah and I learned about the tourism industry that has popped up around the death of these presidents, of the strange things that happened back then which would never happen today, of totem poles that were meant to disparage the person they gave it to and more. Beyond that, we tried to put into context what it would be like to be one of those presidents or to be around when this was happening. Even if I never quite managed to form an emotional connection, I was at least able to get myself to the level of an onlooker at a traffic accident.
After all, how could we not gawk when some of the assassins belonged to weird sex cults temporarily or the fact that back in the day there were actually weird sex cults. Maybe this is naive of me, but I thought everything was pretty puritan back then. Add into the strange mix that the president at the time of Assassination Vacation’s publishing was George Bush and it’s like staring into a strange time portal.
And you want to warn the person that it’s just going to get so much worse before it gets any better, but everything you say falls on deaf ears. It’s a fascinating look back not just at the history of presidents long past, but also what it was like to be living as a liberal during the Bush era.
100% recommended for its weirdness and charm. Infotainment at its best.