Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You sockdologizing* old mantrap!

I didn't know that John Wilkes Booth was waiting for that particular line in the play Our American Cousin -- a line that would draw uproarious laughter and thus drown out the sound of the gunshot -- before he pulled the trigger near Abraham Lincoln's left ear on the evening of April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. As an actor, Booth probably knew the value of a good laugh line, but this is just one instance of the melodrama that became his final two weeks of life. In James Swanson's Chasing Lincoln's Killer we get inside the head of Booth in a very disturbing way. The assassination was just one more performance, one that he hoped would propel him into the stratosphere of 19th century stardom. Of course, Booth got the stardom he craved, but he didn't get to enjoy it for very long.

Here are some other things I learned in this book:
  • Booth was hoping the the military men guarding the Navy Yard Bridge would recognize him and gallantly permit him to cross it after curfew. They let him pass without recognition.
  • Once he reached Maryland, he asked for newspapers so he could see how welcome the news of the assassination had been. He was disappointed to read that Lincoln's death was universally mourned.
  • A sympathizer named Thomas Jones hid Booth and a co-conspirator named David Herold on his farm for five days before helping to spirit them into Virginia. His role was not known until late in his life when he confessed his participation.
  • Booth was paralyzed when one of the soldiers in pursuit shot him in the neck while they were waiting for the fire they set to force him out of the barn in which he was hiding. [Ew! Booth's vertebrae have been preserved (this was not in the book)!]
  • The young engaged couple who accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's Theatre married, and years later he went mad and killed her.
  • The man who held Booth's horse outside the theatre, Edmund Spangler, was sentenced to six years' imprisonment, even though he knew nothing of the plot to kill Lincoln.

Swanson's book -- which is a young reader's version of his 2006 book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer -- is full of this kind of detail. It's told in a kind of breathless and melodramatic style that accurately reflects its subject and makes for very exciting reading. The tension throughout is palpable, but it's particularly effective as we await -- with Booth -- that fatal line, hidden with him in the back of the Presidential box at Ford's Theatre. As the 12 days pass -- in what must have been long days of terrified boredom for Booth and Herold -- the author does a skilled job at building a sense of impending doom. It could almost pass for fiction.

And, alas, in examining the book, it could be fiction. There are quotations aplenty in the narrative, but nary a reference is cited. There is no bibliography. What was the publisher thinking? Children, just believe me when I tell you that my research came from good primary sources? We don't let young researchers get away with this, why does the author get to? Tsk tsk.

The actor Will Patton reads the audiobook. He's got a gravelly, Southern-tinged voice that he uses to full effect to tell us this story. At times, he reads like a 19th century actor declaiming to the back rows, with deep-voiced drama. It's not cheesy, it's an extremely effective way to tell this theatrical story. I really enjoyed listening to him. (I also enjoyed his performance a couple years ago of On the Road.) And, for me, he seemed to solve the nonfiction audio "problem" I've been encountering recently: While he definitely distinguished between the narrative and the quotations inserted into the narrative, it was subtle enough that I didn't hear the aural "quote marks." When I think back on this, I'm remembering that most of the quotations also came with a "he said," which helps in the dramatizing department, but still he used the technique skillfully.

This might be my favorite amongst the several nonfiction I've listened to this year. Then again, maybe it's not nonfiction.

*Sockdologizing. I can't seem to find a single definition of this word. According to this article (supported -- sort of -- at dictionary.com), it means stunning, forceful, decisive. But, according to this article (citing the Park Service [citing Sarah Vowell?] although I couldn't find this on its website, but it is on Wiktionary), it means manipulative. Hmmm ... context would seem to favor the latter.

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