Brevity Classic Book Review: Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment


A Brevity review of a classic nonfiction book from 2005:

Assassination Vacation

Simon & Schuster / Review by By Patty Wetli

Finding Abe
In her travelogue of sites associated with presidential murders, Sarah Vowell visits Charles Town, Virginia, and the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys, among other far-flung locations. Me, when I want to commune with Honest Abe, I step out my front door. I not only hail from the Land of Lincoln (that’s Illinois, in case you’re unfamiliar with our state slogan), I live in a neighborhood dubbed Lincoln Square, whose main thoroughfare is Lincoln Avenue, which, it goes without saying, traverses the North Side of Chicago. An essential guide:

Where to stay: Vowell tracks John Wilkes Booth’s escape route to Maryland and nearly loses the trail searching for the Mudd House, the home of the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg. Visitors to Chicago will be similarly hard pressed to locate lodging outside downtown’s pricey tourist district. Luckily for Lincoln-philes, the rare exception to this rule is a string of motels located on the northern spur of Lincoln Avenue, a holdover from the road’s former glory days as US 41. Check out The Stars, 6100 N. Lincoln; Tip Top, 6060 N. Lincoln; or The Diplomat, 5230 N. Lincoln. Pay no attention to residents who refer to these as “hooker motels.” So what if you can rent rooms by the hour. Doesn’t prove a thing.

Where to eat: The Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 N. Lincoln Ave., would seem the obvious choice. But while this kitschy diner boasts a certain charm—and specialty omelets named after Generals Grant, Sheridan, Lee, et al—enough Yelp! reviews contain the word “gross” to indicate an alternative might be advisable. Let me suggest The Grafton Irish Pub & Grill, 4530 N. Lincoln. Wondering what an Irish pub has to do with Lincoln? For starters, the Irish are experts on civil war. Then there’s the matter of the nearly 150,000 Irish-born soldiers who served in the Union Army and the countless others who fought for the Confederacy. Raise a pint of Guinness in their honor.

What to do: It’s no Ford’s Theatre, where Vowell takes in a performance of the musical 1776, but the Davis Theater,4614 N. Lincoln, also shares ties to an infamous crime. Surely you’ve heard of “The Case of the Ragged Stranger.” No? On June 21, 1920, Carl Wanderer left the Davis (then called the Pershing) and walked home with his pregnant wife, where he had a hit man waiting to murder her. If that doesn’t creep you out, the fact that the theater’s seats seemingly haven’t been re-upholstered or cleaned since, oh, 1920, will.

What to see:“A pilgrimage needs a destination,” writes Vowell. Hers leads to the Lincoln Memorial, which she calls “the closest thing I have to a church.” Ours takes us to Walgreens, 4801 N. Lincoln. We come here not to worship at the altar of deodorant, light bulbs or cigarettes, but the statue of Abe that stands sentry outside the drugstore. Created by renowned sculptor Avard Fairbanks, perhaps best known for designing Dodge’s ram symbol, the statue was dedicated in 1956, for really no apparent reason. Shoo away the pigeons and homeless people who use Lincoln as their roost and perhaps you’ll find the inspiration you’ve been seeking, the following quote by our sixteenth president, inscribed into the statue’s base: “Free society is not, and shall not be a failure.”


Patty Wetli lives in Chicago. Her work has been published in the literary magazine I Ate The Spider, and she contributes reviews to Booklist.

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