Thursday, November 20, 2008

Manhunt Book Review

I wrote this fro Wallace which is why I am upset that I didn't do a very good job. I read teh book, but i didn't start the review until two days before it was due. This is strange for me, but it is what I did... Here it is. In the ink. By the way, I did adore this book.

Manhunt Review
Amanda Cunningham
Dr. Wallace
Manhunt is a gripping adventure story. The plot follows assassin John Wilkes Booth through his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This nonfiction story begins with his sudden plan to kill, rather than kidnap the President, and ends with what happens after the twelve day chase across the country. The beginning of the book tells a lot about the actual assassination of Lincoln. The reader is able to see the light bulb flash in Booth’s head when he notices the perfect opportunity to kill the President, then see the act take place, follow the chase, and finally see what happens to booth in the end. The bulk of the book takes an in depth look at the life of Booth and the country over the twelve days that follow the assassination. The reader can follow booth through injury and escape, victory and fear. This book is a time machine to history that just happens to be interesting enough to pull any reader into the action.

The most thrilling truth about this book is how factual it is. While speaking with the author, James L. Swanson, at a recent book fair, I discovered that he read over 800 print works to compile this text. He said that he spent so much time focused solely on this one subject that he felt as if he himself were there. For many years, he lived in a tiny apartment with only a desk a bed and his Lincoln collection. The selected readings section in this book is so limited that the author himself says that it can not be trusted as a complete bibliography. He read so many other books and original prints that it was impossible to accurately cite each one. If the reader takes a look at the “About the Author” section of the book they will find that Lawson is almost a human Lincoln Encyclopedia. He was born on Lincoln’s birthday and says that is where his passion began. He has a personal Lincoln library that includes original newspaper prints from the time of Lincoln’s assassination. He has a passion for Lincoln, and when a person has a passion for something it is safe to trust their judgment.

One of my personal favorite chapters was near the beginning when Lawson described the moments after Booth shot Lincoln. Before this book I was unaware of how mangled and hopeless Lincoln really was. When I previously heard about Lincoln’s assassination, I heard that he survived for a while after he died, but in reality he was basically dead the moment the shot took place. Lincoln was brain dead by today’s standards, but the men around him wanted to give the President a graceful death. Ironically enough, these men are the same men who ripped out a chunk of Lincoln’s brain and threw it into the street. They didn’t really help Lincoln medically in the moments following the shot. Also, if the reader pays close attention, they can see just how many people wanted to be part of the history. One woman in particular took drastic measures to be sure e her name was a part of history. She pushed her way through Ford’s Theatre and into the President’s box, in order to place his mangled head in her lap for a few seconds. Lincoln’s death was such a gripping tale that I believe it deserves a book all its own.

The book itself is full of actual quotes and documents from actual people who were experiencing the historic events. As I was reading, I was highlighting the quotes and documents throughout the text. Almost 1/3 of the book was glowing when I finished. Quotes and documents bring a reader into a scene. The historical scene comes alive through the dialog. During Chapter three, when Lawson was describing the scene in which Secretary of State William H. Seward was attacked, Lawson dug through years of documents and found actual dialog that was spoken that night in that house. Lawson dug through documents to find the only words Powell spoke during the attack, “I’m mad, I’m mad!” To have that information truly does add to the scene. I imagine a killer who pushes his way through a house to be screaming and causing a ruckus, but from this information it becomes apparent that Powel was the complete opposite. He hardly says a word during the attack and when he finally does speak it is to exclaim that he has gone insane. Was this a cry for help, or a way to get out of charges? For the days following Lincoln’s assassination, Lawson found actual telegrams sent from Edward Straton to different Generals across the country. We find out as the country found out where Booth was supposed to have been sighted, and we find out the status of the rest of the cabinet‘s livelihood. Lawson did an amazing job pulling the reader into the action of history.

Another fun aspect of this book is all the pictures Lawson included. I myself believe that there is no substitute for a good set of words, but a picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. Lawson also has a partner book which goes along with this one that includes a compilation of pictures and documents he used for Manhunt. The pictures bring the reader into the action. One picture that is especially revealing is that of Booth in his final moments behind a wall, fighting to the end, on crutches.

In most historical books the author tends to write with a somewhat bias toward some particular character or characters, but Lawson doesn’t do that. Most likely stemming from his love of the time, he speaks of each character as people, and not like an antagonist and a protagonist. The characters are not all inherently evil or good. As I was reading I felt a sense of encouragement for Booth. He killed Lincoln, because he felt like it was the right thing to do. After the assassination though, the story is really about an escape. It reminds me a lot of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin. I was rooting for Booth to get out of complex situations.
I would recommend Manhunt most anybody, not only historians. If a reader is not interested in nonfiction work, the book reads like a fiction novel. For those who enjoy nonfiction work, the facts are all checked and triple checked.

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