Sunday, November 17, 2013

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase to Catch Lincoln's Killer

by James L. Swanson

The whole time I was reading this book something was not sitting right with me, but it wasn't until close to the end that I finally pinpointed my annoyance; Manhunt paints John Wilkes Booth as a martyr. While I understand the value in looking at events from differing perspectives, I think it is necessary to do so honestly, and I think that was lacking in this telling of the Lincoln assassination.

To begin with, the title leads you to believe the book is about tracking Booth down as he tries to escape after killing Lincoln. In reality it is about Booth trying to avoid being captured. The difference is perspective. The majority of the book is following Booth as he is on the run, it is his perspective, his thoughts, concerns and efforts to flee. While he is in hiding and being smuggled from shelter to shelter the author repeatedly refers to anyone who might expose Booth as unpatriotic, a betrayer or Judas. Swanson also characterizes the troops hunting Booth in a negative light, particularly in the epilogue, where he makes it seem like they only wanted money and glory.

Another issue for me was how the author presented Booth's case for carrying out the murder of the president. He spends a lot of time allowing Booth to justify himself through letters (actual), thoughts and conversations (invented), and makes Booth look like a righteous defender of the Constitution and the Confederacy.  But then he brushes aside the damning motivations of Booth: his hatred of blacks, his anger over Lincoln's sympathy and promotion of equality, his anger over Lee's surrender, and his self-righteousness. The book also makes a lot of effort to build tender relationships between J Wilkes Booth and his friends and family. There are letters from him to his sister, and several endearing comments from her toward him. It makes him appear concerned over the safety of this conspirators and his partner on the lam to the neglect of his own pain, etc. But his betrayal, dishonesty and exploitation of these same friends is totally disregarded. I guess I'm just getting tired of everyone trying to make the bad guys look good.

Finally, I have questions as to this book being classified as non-fiction. While there are many stated facts, copies of letters and news articles, photos, etc, there seems to be a lot of liberty taken in regard to thoughts of people, conversations between them, and interpretation of characters.

I'm mixed as to recommending this read. It was interesting and detailed areas of the Lincoln assassination that I'd not read about before (seen History channel documentaries, but not read), but I do wish it'd been a little more objective.

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