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Chasing Lincoln's Killer

Review

Chasing Lincoln's Killer

Hot on the heels of the release of his New York Times  bestselling true crime novel, MANHUNT, Abraham Lincoln aficionado James Swanson has penned a just-as-gripping young adult version of the 12-day hunt for the President’s killer, John Wilkes Booth. Filled with pages of more than 70 sepia-toned photographs, newspaper clippings and miniature representations of other artifacts from the time period, this true-to-life page-turner makes the story of what some kids begrudgingly learn in their classrooms a fun and action-packed read. 

The story --- of Abe Lincoln’s death and Swanson’s life --- begins on February 12th, the mutual birthday of the 16th President of the United States and, coincidentally, the author. On the day he turned 10, Swanson’s grandmother gave him an engraving of the Deringer pistol John Wilkes Booth used to murder Lincoln, framed by a newspaper article published the day following the assassination. Swanson is now an expert on Lincoln’s life, death and everything in between. He’s a member of the advisory committee of the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and serves on the Board of the Ford Theatre Society.

Consequently, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER, Swanson’s first book for young readers, has the mark of a story being told by someone who is truly geeked out by his subject. He practically stumbles over himself (to the assured delight of readers) to share each gritty detail about the days following the President’s murder. He describes the actual deed in all its gruesome splendor --- Booth’s insatiable thirst for blood, the bullet “ripping through [Lincoln’s] chestnut-colored hair” and coming to rest behind the President’s right eye amidst “wet brain matter,” the smoke from the shot still hanging in the air. He follows that up with tales of that fateful day’s other attempted murders --- that of Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Johnson.

Swanson also does an excellent job filling in the story with gripping accounts of Booth’s tumultuous but near-perfect escape, as well as highlighting each shady accomplice who helped him along his journey. There are moments throughout the story that seem slightly embellished, and others where Swanson might jump from event to event a little too quickly for some teachers’ tastes (although students will disagree). But one might argue that it’s a historian’s prerogative to relay events in the way he deems suitable --- especially if the story in question is for readers with short attention spans.

With a glut of material out there about Lincoln’s life, death and reign as President of the United States, some might ask, “Who needs yet another book out there about the subject?” But with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth coming up --- and Swanson’s own birthday, of course --- CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a welcome addition to the pile. 

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on February 1, 2009

Chasing Lincoln's Killer
by James L. Swanson

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2009
  • Genres: History
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0439903548
  • ISBN-13: 9780439903547