Friday, March 10, 2017

What we're reading: Engaging nonfiction

It's a little late for President Lincoln's birthday (February 12), and a little early for his death date (April 14), but I just read an intriguingly crafted nonfiction book intended for teens but that will be of interest to any who are interested in Lincoln, and perhaps people who just like a good nonfiction read from time to time as well.

The book is Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson.

This book is based on a collection of archival material, trial manuscripts, interviews with relatives of the conspirators to murder Lincoln, and interviews with those who hunted them down. Rather than the static picture that begins and ends with John Wilkes Booth shooting President Lincoln, then standing on the stage to shout "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!" before fleeing the theater, this book gives details about the various plots beforehand (including one that never worked out, to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom), the organization and planning of the entire evening's events (which were supposed to include the deaths of Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward as well), the exact details of the assassination, and the fast-paced 12-day pursuit of John Wilkes Booth from D.C. into Maryland and Virginia.

Nothing here has been fictionalized--all has been gleaned from original sources such as letters, trial transcripts, newspapers, broadsides, and other documents of the time. But all of it has been crafted into an exciting story that makes you want to read on, as if it were a novel.

I was impressed by this book. Everything about it was done right: the presentation (interesting layouts, fonts, and color choices), the archival materials (lots of great photos, drawings, etchings, posters, etc. to illustrate the text), and the "story." From the planning to the co-conspirators to the act itself to the manhunt afterwards, this was a narrative rather than a dry recitation of facts about the assassination of Lincoln, and included interesting facts like what John Wilkes Booth was carrying in his pockets, the background of those who sheltered him and why they did it (gladly or reluctantly), and so on. If history was always presented this way, many more people would be fans.

If you are a nonfiction enthusiast  in general, you might want to take a look at all the winners of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for the past six years, here. Burbank Public Library owns many of these titles, and we'd be glad to help you locate them, check them out, and appreciate nonfiction anew!

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