I recently read Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. It’s the story of the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, and it is beautifully written and heartbreaking.

Yes, a history book can be a page-turner. I previously knew very little about Garfield or late 19th-century American politics. And I wasn’t particularly compelled to know more until I saw this book recommended and read some terrific reviews. I’m willing to take a chance on a topic if I can expect remarkable writing from an author. I know a great writer can take a marginally interesting topic and make it fascinating, while a poor writer can ruin even the most promising material. (I’ve joked before that I would rather take an accounting class taught by a skilled and enthusiastic professor than sit through a sex ed class taught by someone who’s an uninspired and poor communicator. Same principle.)

Well, Millard’s writing delivered. She weaves story lines together masterfully. Politics, medicine, technology, and lunacy take their places in a narrative centered on the biography of a man who could have been a truly great president. But he’s no more than a footnote in history because of the delusions of one deranged man and the failings of late 19th-century medicine.

Garfield would easily have survived had medicine been about twenty years more advanced at the time. It wasn’t the assassin’s bullet that killed him. It was the infection caused by the ignorance of the doctors who treated him.

Garfield was a notable scholar and a leader of great character and immense talent. You can’t read this book and not have admiration for him. And that makes the story so much more wrenching, knowing what potential was lost and to such a combination of lunacy and medical incompetence.

This book is a great read for students of history and politics, of course, but also for those interested in medicine and technology. Alexander Graham Bell’s story is woven into Garfield’s as he rushes to perfect a device to help locate the bullet lodged inside the President. Bell at the time was weary of the acclaim and stress his invention of the telephone had brought him, and his quest to help save Garfield plunged him into work he thought would be of more lasting value than his most famous invention.

This book is a good story well told and is a reminder that non-fiction in the hands of an excellent writer can be just as compelling as a novel.

Destiny of the Republic