Candice Millard didn't set out to write about Garfield. After her popular and highly acclaimed River of Doubt, the tale of Theodore Roosevelt's journey up the Amazon, she didn't want to write about another president. Her intention was to write about Alexander Graham Bell. In her research, and she does extensive research, she discovered that Bell had worked to the point of exhaustion and near despair on an invention that he hoped might save Garfield's life. And The Destiny of a Republic was born.
Bell's toil remains an interesting sub-plot, one of several, in Millard's narrative; for as the subtitle describes, this is "a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President."
In the long run, Bell's effort could not overcome the havoc and destruction generated by the very physicians, led by one Dr. Doctor Bliss (no kidding!), with Garfield's recovery. Doctors who probed and poked the wounded president with dirty hands and dirty instruments, who kept him in the then rotting and rat infested White House, bringing on the massive internal infections that ultimately caused his death. That caused him to "rot" from within, unnecessarily as it turned out.
Although Joseph Lister's antiseptic techniques were accepted and successfully practiced in Europe, they were largely demeaned and dismissed by traditional and arrogant American physicians. The dangerously delusional, grandiose assassin, Charles Giteau, recognized the horrible culpability of Garfield's doctors, when at his trial he stated, "I shot the President; the doctors killed him." An indictment that an autopsy would confirm, although Bliss was never held accountable.
Millard's rich narrative style, built upon her skills as a researcher, analyst and editor, deliver history and its characters with a panache that would/should make any history professor green with envy. Garfield, Bliss, Giteau and a cast of several supporting characters are as well developed as any in a good novel. And what a movie this could make!
But, while I always appreciate strong character development, it is the larger historical, political, and medical context that Millard creates that I found most riveting and educational. I frequently heard myself saying, "I didn't know that." Then, "Why didn't I know that?" As I wandered through the multi-layered tableau of the beleaguered American post-Civil War landscape, the corrupt political environment, the barbaric medical practices, I also wandered through a surprising array of emotions. Anger and dismay, respect and incredulity, cynicism and hope, and ultimately tearful sorrow at the needless, excruciating death of what appeared to be a remarkable human being.
The remarkable man that emerges through his letters, and diaries, through the loyalties of other remarkable individuals - an educated, thoughtful, strong and compassionate man -would Garfield have made a remarkable president? Would he have been allowed to? I can hope the answer to both questions would/could be yes. I do know with certainty, however, that in The Destiny of the Republic Candice Millard has created this convert to historical narrative. And I will wait patiently for her next book. In the meantime, I'll go back and finish The River of Doubt.