I picked this book up because the cover looked cool and the title was exciting, and what I learned is that it always pays off to judge a book by its cover. What a great book. I’m not a big reader of nonfiction because, regardless of how interesting the person or event, the writing always feels like I’m reading a bunch of facts. I want to know what the people were thinking and feeling, not just what they did. Candice Millard’s writing style, however, is so effortless and gripping, that this nonfiction feels more like a story and less like a factual account of events.
I have to admit that before reading this book I knew absolutely nothing about President Garfield. Rightfully so since he only held the office for a couple of months. Now, however, I have a deep admiration for this man that was so full of character and strength. Millard paints a picture of a man that kept his wit and integrity through times when most of us would break down into self-pity and anger. Garfield’s story is told through a narrative consisting of personal letters, diary entries, and newspaper reports lending it factual credibility as well as insight into the emotions of the main characters.
The book tells the story of Garfield’s meager beginnings to his unlikely nomination for the presidency, his shooting, and fatal medical care. The portions of the book dedicated to the accounts of Garfield’s medical care are a bit difficult to read. I often found myself audibly gasping and admiring Garfield even more for continuing to exhibit such strength of character. The book also contains some very interesting side stories about the people who impacted, or had the potential to impact, Garfield’s life. Millard includes narratives from Alexander Graham Bell’s personal letters about his invention of the telephone and his attempt to create the induction balance to locate the bullet lodged in Garfield as well as excerpts from Charles Guiteau’s diary, Garfield’s assassin who was a crazy, crazy little man.
But perhaps my favorite part of the book was the quotes from Garfield’s letters and speeches. Garfield spoke so eloquently and thoughtfully that I now include him on my short list of people, dead or alive, that I would have a dinner party with if given the opportunity. For example, in a letter to his mother from college where he was working as a janitor to pay his tuition (talk about American dream, poverty to President), he wrote, “If I ever get through a course of study I don’t expect any one will ask me what kind of a coat I wore when studying, and, if they do I shall not be ashamed to tell them it was a ragged one.” Or, from a speech Garfield gave to a large delegation of African American men, “You were not made free merely to be allowed to vote but in order to enjoy an equality of opportunity in the race of life. Permit no man to praise you because you are black, nor wrong you because you are black. Let it be known that you are ready and willing to work out your own material salvation by your own energy, your own worth, your own labor.” Moving. And, when the doctor told him he had one chance in a hundred of surviving the gunshot, Garfield replied, “We will take that chance, doctor, and make good use of it.” But my all-time favorite Garfield quote that I have even my fiancé repeating, “Of course I deprecate war, but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home.”
I’m very surprised at how much I liked this book, and I’m glad this book exists to shed light on a great man that not a lot of people know about. I’m excited to read more of this author’s works. Or, maybe my next adventure in nonfiction will be to pick up a book about Vice President/successor President Chester Arthur. His part in Garfield’s tale is also pretty interesting.