Until recently, I knew virtually nothing about President James A. Garfield.
I knew his name and that he’d been shot a few months into his presidency. I have vague memories of seeing a dimly-lit wax museum re-creation of the event, maybe in Washington, D.C. Beyond that, my knowledge was nonexistent.
Enter former National Geographic editor Candice Millard and her second book, “Destiny of the Republic,” released September 2011. I purchased it, admittedly, in part for the cover. It has Garfield’s picture on the front, a sepia tone profile with a magnificent beard and grand hat that give off a stoic, Norse vibe. He looks utterly serious, an 1880s version of Chuck Norris.
The time period the book is set in hooked me further. The 50 years between the U.S. Civil War’s end and World War I is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting periods in U.S. history. It makes me think of smoke and iron; of archaic, lightning-powered technology in the hands of sorcerers like Tesla; of Colt six shooters, Pinkerton detectives, telegraphs and coal-powered locomotives.
I’d read Tesla’s biography. I’d read “Devil in the White City” and “Thunderstruck.” I’d read “American Lightning.” “Destiny” was new to me. I snatched it right up.
Millard’s key strength – among many – is imparting a sizable amount of information effectively and concisely. At just over 300 pages, the book isn’t just about an assassination attempt; it’s about a volatile, corrupt political climate, a country still enduring the outcomes of a brutal Civil War, a people’s primitive – albeit evolving – understanding of medicine, germs and human anatomy, and the lasting effects of not caring for the mentally ill. It’s also about how drastically choices affect outcomes. It is a book of enormous topics that is succinct in its presentation, and it’s beautifully done.
So in the spirit of succinctness, I’ll end here, only to say it has become the best non-fiction book I’ve ever opened. And rarely closed.