I never liked school. It was hard for me, a shy, quiet, bookish girl who just wanted to read and write all day long, preferably outside in the fresh air. School was too restrictive (and it was inside for crying out loud) with way too many rules.
Despite this, my favorite subjects were literature and history. Since both required lots of reading and writing I did well and even majored in them in college but, still hating school, I didn’t want to teach either. So I did something even better: I became a librarian giving me full access to all the books I wanted.
But as much as I enjoy fiction, I also love historical non-fiction. There are some wonderful true stories out there, richly written and, in the process, teaching you something you never knew before. There are so many, this post is the first in a series where I highlight some of my favorites.
This post’s theme is presidents.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. Everyone knows that “TR” was an adventurous and impulsive personality, ready to go to war on a moment’s notice, but I never knew that he embarked on a perilous exploration trip to a remote part of the Amazon jungle with a small, poorly prepared party that included a celebrated guide and one of his sons. He almost didn’t make it out alive. See also Millard’s more recent book about another president below.
Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. This is a gripping account of the day-by-day search for our 16th president’s assassin. You’ll discover the controversial role of Dr. Samuel Mudd and the conspiracy behind it all.
The Lincolns in the White House: Four Years That Shattered a Family by Jerrold M. Packard. You already know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated but did you also know he lost a young son to illness, that his wife had serious mental problems, and that Washington D.C. was a thoroughly horrible place to live (with swamps, poor sanitation, and disease) in the 1800s?
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. The witty writer and radio commentator takes you on a tour of America’s sites and landmarks related to presidential assassinations. Quirky and fascinating.
The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth by Matthew Algeo. During the Gilded Age, Grover Cleveland, whose motto was “tell the truth,” disappeared for several days for a serious cancer operation on a yacht and agreed to a coverup of the incident. Also explores the early days of investigative journalism and the reporter who was criticized (and later redeemed) for his role in revealing the truth.
The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller. This recently published book, in alternating chapters, reveals the history of anarchy in the United States alongside America’s rise to imperialism, including the Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh.
The Destiny of the Republic: Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I didn’t know that James A. Garfield was a brilliant academic, soldier, and respected politician who grew up in poverty and never wanted to be president. Unfortunately, what most people know of him is that he was only president for three months before he was felled first by an assassin’s bullets and then his doctors’ horrifying lack of sanitary medical care. Yikes!