Friday, October 21, 2011

Millard weaves a rich tale of murder and madness in Destiny of the Republic

Book 111: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

It's an almost impossible task for a writer to create and sustain narrative tension when the reader already knows how the story is resolved.

Impossible for most, perhaps, but not Candice Millard.

Her first history, the riveting The River of Doubt, chronicled Teddy Roosevelt's arduous journey down an uncharted Amazon river.  Students of history knew Roosevelt survived the journey, yet Millard had the reader hanging on every sentence.

Teddy's survival was known, but just how narrow his escape from death wasn't.  Through Millard's vivid prose, the reader was able to understand the extent of Roosevelt's courage and tenacity, and just how closely he came to death.

Millard once more fashions familiar material into a gripping tale in her new history, Destiny of the Republic, an account of the assassination of President James Garfield. 

Packed into less than 300 pages, Destiny of the Republic ranges from Garfield's reluctant nomination as the Republican candidate for president in 1880 to his election and subsequent assassination to his brave, but futile fight for life.  

Garfield's foil is his assassin Charles Guiteau, a frustrated office-seeker who is convinced that God wants him to kill the president and that Americans will proclaim him a hero for gunning down Garfield in cold blood.  Guiteau anticipates that both fame and fortune will be his.  

Garfield and Guiteau are not the only figures who step from the pages in vivid relief in Millard's fine account. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and British surgeon Joseph Lister have cameo roles whose importance far outweighs their brief appearance in these pages.

Millard illustrates how Garfield's assassination changed the course of the lives of Vice President Chester Arthur and D.C. physician Willard Bliss -- one for good, the other's reputation tarnished forever.  

Arthur was an ally of Garfield's most implacable political opponent, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Many Americans briefly believed that Arthur and Conkling conspired with Guiteau to assassinate the president. Many more were concerned that Arthur, who had never held elective office prior to the vice presidency, would be Conkling's puppet once he ascended to the presidency.

But Athur, grief-stricken by Garfield's death, emerged as his own man.  He shook off Conkling's control and honored Garfield's legacy during his single term in office.

Bliss joins Guiteau as the villain of this sad tale.  He emerges as an insecure man more concerned for his reputation than in saving the president's life.  

And it is that story, the stubborn ignorance and arrogance of the medical community, which doomed Garfield quite as much as Guiteau's bullets, that makes for the most interesting, yet dismaying, part of Millard's book. 

Left untreated, it is likely Garfield would have survived. Instead, Bliss and other medical men probed his wound with their unsanitary fingers and medical utensils. When he died, Garfield's body was riddled with infection.

As Millard illustrates, Garfield died, not from the wounds he received from an assassin's bullets, but from the treatment he received after being shot.  In his trial, in his own defense, Guiteau argued that Garfield was not fatally shot, but died from malpractice. True, perhaps, although it did not persuade the jury that convicted Guiteau and ordered him hung.

As one would expect from a political history, there is also a political debate, concerning the spoils system, woven through the Destiny of the Republic.  The fate of that issue, which contributed to Guiteau's motives, was resolved soon after Garfield's death.

Admittedly, Millard has rich material to work with in telling what the book's sub-title proclaims is a tale of "madness, medicine and murder." Yet it is also clear that the author is richly talented.

And that she knows how to tell a story.

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