A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In her first book, The River of Doubt, former National Geographic editor Candice Millard took readers back to 1913 to join Teddy Roosevelt on a dangerous journey through Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The expedition disappeared for several long months and was late arriving at the mouth of the mysterious river. The American public feared that the former president and his son had died and would never be found. The fear was totally justified, and the story of how they survived brutal terrain, vicious diseases, and attacks by indigenous tribes is great reading. Could Millard’s next book be compelling?
It is time to judge Millard’s second book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. At first glance, you might not see how similar Millard’s new book is to its predecessor. Much of River of Doubt is set in an incredibly dangerous and remote jungle, while Destiny of the Republic is set mostly in the White House in Washington, D.C. The Amazonian expedition was out of the public eye, while Garfield’s medical condition was reported daily. Still, infection was the ultimate enemy in both stories. Garfield was surrounded by doctors, but they had all rejected the antiseptic theories of Joseph Lister. In their street clothes, they all poked about the president’s wound with unwashed fingers, laughing at the idea that invisible organisms could be introduced into a patient. As a result, Garfield filled with infection and swelling that his proud and inflexible primary physician called natural. It took him two and a half painful months to die.
As in her previous book, Millard has filled Destiny of the Republic with finely portrayed characters, including the insane drifter Charles Guiteau who believed shooting the president would help him get an appointment to a federal job (from the grateful next administration), and Alexander Graham Bell who devoted two months to invent a device that would locate the bullets still in the president’s body. The focus, of course, is Garfield, an articulate speaker and champion of reform whose worst enemies are from his own party. He bore his suffering with great courage, according to Millard.