Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 5-12.
• History related title
• James L Swanson
• Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
• Publisher: New York, Scholastic
• 2009
• 208 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-439-90354-8
• Awards: YALSA Best Book for Young Adults
• Author’s website: The author does not appear to have a website but does have a twitter account.

Outraged at the North’s defeat of the South, John Wilkes Booth took the chance fate offered him and assassinated President Lincoln. That death was the beginning of a 12-day manhunt that galvanized the nation as Union loyalists sought the conspirators and those sympathetic to the Confederacy helped them escape.

Swanson has written an unabashed thriller that plays up the astonishing details and gruesome facts of Lincoln’s assassination and the manhunt that followed. This is a condensed version of his 400+ page adult book: Manhunt. Frequently Swanson reports the thoughts and sensations of characters: Booth heard the dialogue on stage not a “words but like the last ticks of a dying clock winding down”- “Seward choked on the warm, metallic-tasting blood that spurted from his mouth and poured down his throat.” These vivid images do help propel the narrative but without source notes undermine the credibility of the text, which is a pity as there is much to be admired in the book.

Even though most readers will know of Lincoln’s assassination and the eventual capture of Booth, Swanson manages to keep readers on the edge of their seats as the events play out minute by minute. He has unearthed and brought together an impressive amount of information that lets us know what Booth did and said virtually every moment from the time he decided to kill the President until his death. Lots of period images and photographs break up the text and help create the mood of the time. Even those who think they know about Lincoln’s assassination will find lots of new information in this impressively immersive book. The lack of sources, photo and quotation credits is a serious flaw.

Front matter: a brief paragraph states the story is true, all the characters are real and text within quotation marks comes from original sources. A photo of the author as a boy accompanies a brief blurb that establishes the author’s long personal interest in Lincoln’s assassination. A list of participants helps keep characters straight. A two-page essay establishes the historic context of the civil war and its final confusing ‘lost-cause’ chapter after Robert E. Lee’s surrender but before the surrender of the rest of the Confederate army. A prologue describes Lincoln’s second inauguration and two subsequent public appearances he made. John Wilkes Booth, present at two of the speeches recognized he had missed chances to kill the president and vowed Lincoln would never make another speech.

Back matter: An epilogue provides many fascinating summaries of the fates of principal characters, including what happened to the bodies of some of the conspirators. A brief blurb about the author adds more biographical information. Acknowledgments thank those who helped and encouraged the author. A few libraries and museums are thanked but no specific experts are named. A map shows the route of the assassins. What is missing is any bibliographic information, any substantiation of facts or quotations, any credits for images and photographs or an index. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is based on Swanson’s adult book Manhunt, which has an extensive annotated bibliography, copious notes divided by chapter and an index. I cannot understand how the publishers could have allowed this book to go to press with only a flimsy ‘everything in here is true-because I say so’ paragraph at the front.


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