Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: 'Destiny of the Republic' by Candice Millard

✰✰✰✰½ Take a trip back in time to the Gilded Age, a time when the nation was still divided and the president was accessible to everyone. James A. Garfield's short tenure as America's 20th president is often overlooked, but he was an extraordinary man. Rising up from poverty, he became a war hero and respected leader. A staunch supporter of equal rights for blacks, Garfield won the respect of the Republican National Committee and was selected as their candidate for president, a role Garfield never actively sought.

Once Garfield became president, he came under intense pressure to honor the spoils system. Hundreds of office seekers lined up at the White House vying for positions they thought they deserved. Enter an office seeker named Charles Guiteau. Under the spoils system, Guiteau fully expected to be rewarded for what he thought was his part in getting Garfield elected. Unfortunately, there would be no appointment for Guiteau, and the disappointment turned him into a stalker and would-be assassin.

While Guiteau fully intended to kill President Garfield, the wounds were not fatal. Had Garfield been left alone, he very well may have recovered. However, due to his status as the president, he became the focus of the medical community. Enter Dr. Doctor Bliss, a physician with a checkered past. Under Bliss’s care, Garfield bravely and silently suffered through archaic and incompetent medical care.

Enter a young inventor named Alexander Graham Bell, who was sickened by the thought of doctors blindly probing inside Garfield's body for a wayward bullet. Bell became obsessed with the idea of inventing what was basically a metal detector for the human body. Unfortunately, the reluctance of the medical community to adopt new methods led to the tragic death of the 20th president of the United States.
The Bottom Line: Painstakingly researched and told with sensitivity, Millard's book sheds light on mostly forgotten events. Destiny of the Republic is written in braided narrative style, and it was fascinating to watch the lives of James A. Garfield, Charles Guiteau, and Alexander Graham Bell intersect. Reading about Dr. Doctor Bliss's insistence that archaic procedures be tried repeatedly in unsanitary conditions was heartbreaking. I found myself wondering if American history might have been different had Garfield lived and carried out his vision for America.
Very highly recommended for history buffs, true crime fans, and for readers who don’t usually read nonfiction. Author Candice Millard has masterfully woven together the tales of a leader, a murderer, and an inventor. Readers of biographies will appreciate this as well. Also, this book includes several pages of fascinating black and white photos and illustrations. As a final note, those who are a bit squeamish may want to skip over the descriptions of the horrific medical procedures performed by Dr. Doctor Bliss.

Book Club Notes:
 This quick read appealed to the club on many levels. We agreed that there was something for everyone including politics, medicine, crime, science, technology, and history. Each participant picked up on something different. Additionally, it was interesting discussing the contrasts between Garfield’s accomplishments and Guiteau's failures. Likewise, the contrast between Dr. Bliss's complacent arrogance with Bell’s obsessive curiosity provided ample discussion as well. Finally, we discussed the changes spurred by Garfield’s untimely death: 1.) The nation became unified, 2.) Chester Arthur eliminated the spoils system and set up a civil service system, 3.) Doctors finally adopted the practice of antisepsis.
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard is a well-paced nonfiction book and a great example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. It was easily one of our best discussions to date. This book is highly recommended for book clubs interested in discussing nonfiction. You can find a reading guide with discussion questions at LitLovers. Also, the Lincoln City Libraries in Lincoln, Nebraska have put together a handy resource page.
Details: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. Paperback published by Anchor Books in 2012. 432 p. ISBN: 978-0-7679-2971-4

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