Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Notes: January 1-7

 American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857 by Sally Denton was a compelling read about an horrific chapter in early LDS history.  A wagon train of about 140 emigrants from Arkansas was passing through Utah territory en route to California when, in a shocking and senseless attack, a group of Mormon militia (some disguised as Indians) slaughtered nearly all of them -- sparing only around 17 children under the age of eight.  Almost as impossible to fathom as this massacre was the incredible early history of the LDS church as written by Ms. Denton.  If you have a generally favorable view of Mormons, as I do, you will realize when reading this book, how different that religion is as practiced today from its founding.  Brigham Young comes off as a real piece of work -- manipulative, paranoid, slick, and shady.  Every religion (every culture or political cult, as well) has incidents in its past both painful and embarrassing.  That the LDS church has emerged from the murky cultishness of its 19th century roots and is now a mainstream part of American life is a testament to a people of general good-will and strong virtue.  I disagree with much of their religion (obviously, as I am an orthodox Christian), but I cannot disagree with the utter pleasure I have had in the company of most of the adherents to that religion.  I just felt like I had to add that, in case anyone passing along in the cyber-realms would think that my looking askance at the founding of the LDS church was an indictment of the church as it stands and functions today.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard was my first finished read of 2012 -- and what a great way to start off the new year!  Do you know anything at all about the too short presidency of James A. Garfield?  I did not.  Nor did I know anything about the man himself.  This book is not a complete biography by any means.  It follows a brief, pre-presidential sketch with the excruciatingly drawn-out tale of his demise.  But, there is enough here of the man Garfield to make a sensitive reader weep buckets at those "saddest words of tongue or pen": what might have been.  My dad suspected elements of hagiography, but I think not.  It is possible that such a man as Mr. Garfield could become president of a grateful nation almost entirely through no effort or desire of his own, simply on the strength of his own virtues as recognized by an eager country, right?  At least, I want and need to believe that it is possible.  And what a man!  The villainy of the piece is distritbuted between the would-be assassin -- insane and unscrupulous self-aggrandizing nomad, Charles Guiteau, and the team of doctors -- led by the overly-confident, backward-looking, self-aggrandizing celebrity surgeon D. Willard Bliss -- who actually had the greater hand in his death.  Interwoven in the tale is Alexander Graham Bell's quest to invent a non-invasive method for detecting the location of a bullet inside a body.  This book is a pleasure to read.  I wept buckets.  I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the GOP convention of 2012 has the same unexpected and highly delightful results as that of 1880 -- that is, pulling out of the shadows a man or woman of true integrity and vision to lead the ticket, for the destiny of our republic.

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