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A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

A-Destiny of the RepublicCandice Millard's previous River of Doubt ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006) gives a harrowing account of Theodore Roosevelt's near-death experience on an uncharted river in the Amazon basin. In Destiny of the Republic, she revisits the often-ignored presidency and untimely death of James A. Garfield.

The Topic: James A. Garfield, the last American president born in a log cabin, rose from abject poverty in Ohio to become a scholar, a Civil War general, and a respected legislator. A somewhat reluctant--if honest and capable--leader of men off the battlefield, Garfield was wounded by would-be assassin Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881, a mere 199 days into his term. It was Garfield's treatment at the hands of his own doctors that finished the job Guiteau's bullets had started. The president lived for 11 weeks after the shooting, and even by the questionable standards of hygiene and medicine available at the time, Candice Millard argues, he should have survived his wounds. Ironically, the insane Guiteau, realizing the extent to which Garfield's doctors had botched the president's care, claimed in his own defense before going to the gallows for his crime that "General Garfield died from malpractice."
Doubleday. 339 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780385526265

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Candice Millard's splendid tale of ‘madness, medicine, and the murder of a president' recovers for us just what a remarkable--even noble--man Garfield was. ... This wonderful book reminds us that our 20th president was neither a minor nor merely a tragic figure, but rather an extraordinary one." Alan Cate

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Destiny of the Republic ... is an achingly good, suspenseful read. Fans of Millard's first book, the best-selling River of Doubt, an equally gripping tale about Theodore Roosevelt's South American adventure gone horribly wrong, will find similarly compelling characters and nail-biting storytelling, and will no doubt walk away even more emotionally affected by Garfield's tragedy." Elyssa East

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Millard builds a popular history that is both substantive and satisfying. Filled with memorable characters, hairpin twists of fate and consequences that bring a young nation to the breaking point, Destiny of the Republic brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period." Erik Spanberg

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]t is one of the many pleasures of Candice Millard's new book, Destiny of the Republic, that she brings poor Garfield to life--and a remarkable life it was. ... Though Garfield's death had little historical significance, Millard has written us a penetrating human tragedy." Kevin Baker

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Destiny of the Republic] restores Garfield's eloquent voice, his great bravery and his strong-willed if not particularly presidential nature. Ms. Millard shows the Garfield legacy to be much more important than most of her readers knew it to be." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though a well-known story, it is the kind of crisis that remains ripe for a crisp, concise and revealing history, and Candice Millard delivers just that in Destiny of the Republic, a narrative of the assassination and its aftermath. ... Millard has crafted a fresh narrative that plumbs some of the most dramatic days in U.S. presidential history." Del Quentin Wilber

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"What's really amiss with Destiny of the Republic are inspiration and originality, two elements that elevated River of Doubt from the ordinary. The death of James Garfield still remains an unfortunate, but minor episode in American history." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

While the death--or the brief presidency--of James Garfield didn't shape American history as much as many historical events did over the last two centuries, Candice Millard proves again, as she did in River of Doubt, to be a capable and engaging guide. She makes a good case for renewed attention not only to the tragic circumstances surrounding Garfield's death but also to an extraordinary life that rarely garners more than a footnote in history books. The author also focuses on a few well-known characters in the margins to give heft to her account--Alexander Graham Bell, John Wesley Powell, and Joseph Lister--though a few critics felt these sections digressive, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette commenting: "Unfazed by her slim material ... [Millard weaves] contemporary but vaguely related elements into her story of Garfield's death." Nonetheless, the story of wasted potential and of America at a scientific and technological crossroads speaks for itself.