Our group discussion this week will center on the fourth book about a U.S. president that we have read in our three-and-a-half-year existence. This is also our second selection written by Candice Millard, and even though it was the subject matter and not the author that attracted us to Destiny of the Republic, I would now say that if my future book browsing turns up something written by Candice Millard, that will be reason enough for me to read it.
Millard is a former editor and writer for National Geographic, so she has a lot of experience writing about history and geography in a way that captures people’s imaginations. In her first book, River of Doubt, which told the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s trip down a tributary of the Amazon River (and which our group discussed in April 2010), and in this most recent book, she has exercised those skills in the telling of historical biographies that are either out of the mainstream (Roosevelt’s trip occurred after his time as president) or not entirely about the person at the center of the tale. Destiny of the Republic is certainly about Garfield, and she tells the whole story of Garfield’s rise through politics to his less-than-willing nomination and election to the presidency. But the bulk of the book is about the medicine and technology that were brought to bear in trying to save Garfield’s life after being shot by a deranged “supporter.”
Alexander Graham Bell played a prominent role in the events following the assassination, and the book tells us nearly as much about his life as it does about Garfield’s. Bell invented a metal detector that could be used to locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s abdomen. The machine worked by registering sound waves when the flow of energy through the body cavity was interrupted by a solid object (the bullet). The invention ultimately failed to locate the bullet, but through no fault of Bell’s; Garfield’s primary doctor – D. Willard Bliss, who also cared for Lincoln after he was shot – tyrannically controlled every aspect of Garfield’s care, such that he only allowed Bell to search the right side of Garfield’s body because that is where he believed the bullet to be. (After Garfield’s death, the autopsy found the bullet in the left side of his abdomen.)
Bliss and the state of medical care in the late 1800s are another topic of Millard’s. Dr. Joseph Lister was, at the time, promoting antiseptic techniques in patient care, but many of his colleagues scoffed at the idea of sterilizing equipment and anything else that came into contact with a patient. This ignorance on the part of Bliss proved fatal for President Garfield, as Bliss refused to believe there was any infection caused by his less-than-sterile medical practices, and it was this infection that ultimately killed the president.
As in River of Doubt, Candice Millard weaves an intriguing story about a president and the time in which he lived. Through extensive research, she has constructed context and dialogue between the characters that would seem as if she (and by extension, the reader) were there. It is the kind of writing that informs as it entertains, and it can move an unsuspecting reader toward an interest in history that will take them in all sorts of fascinating directions.
This is just my view. Our next blog post will feature the group’s review and rankings.