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Book Report: Past U.S. leader rises from the dust heap; Red Wing author composes second work in series

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I've never thought much about our 20th American president, James Garfield.

I knew he was from Ohio, so I simply consigned him to the dust heap of really bad to mediocre presidents from the Buckeye State: Harding, Taft, McKinley, Grant, Hayes, Harrison and Garfield.

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There's a classical legend about the sack of Rome. The Huns came to an elegant villa, knocked on the door and were greeted by the lady of the house.

The Huns said "Give us your jewels."

The woman obliged, bringing her seven children and telling the Huns, "These are my jewels."

The Huns left her alone.

If you go to Columbus, visit the grossly ugly capitol building. Atop it are the busts of -- you guessed it -- Harding, Taft, McKinley, Grant, Hayes, Harrison and Garfield.

The legend underneath?

"These Are My Jewels."

But I was wrong about Garfield. He was indeed consigned to the dust heap, but not because he was a really bad president. According to "The Destiny of the Republic," by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $27.95), Garfield was quite a guy whose life and untimely death made a big dent in American history.

Born dirt poor, he worked his way up in the world, attended Western Reserve Eclectic College (now called Hiram College,) became a professor there, then its president, then a Civil War general.

After that he served as United States senator and was so popular he was elected by a margin of two to one, although he never gave a speech and spent only $150 on his entire campaign.

He didn't want the presidency of the U.S., but was drafted at the unruly 1880 Republican convention in Chicago even though he put in nomination Ohio's senior senator.

In his ad-libbed nomination speech, he recited from memory much of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam." As both senator and president, Garfield was a stolid abolitionist, but one who believed in mending wounds with the vanquished South.

Five months later, he was assassinated by a madman and political opportunist who was turned down in his quest for a spoils appointment. This unfortunate occurrence was what consigned him to the Ohio dust heap.

But the story is not over.

He lingered toward death for weeks, attended to by an idiotic medical mal-practitioner named Dr. Bliss, who refused to use the newly discovered antiseptic practices of Joseph Lister. When Alexander Graham Bell finally found the bullet with one of his new inventions, Dr. Bliss refused to believe him and kept probing for the bullet in all the wrong places.

Finally, Garfield simply rotted to death.

Of course the whole tragedy resulted in much media attention and as a consequence his vice-president and successor Chester Arthur, a notorious spoils artist in earlier years, turned his back on the "Stalwarts," the faction that wanted its pound of flesh from the southern insurgents, and introduced civil service exams rather than appointing his old friends to serve down South and extract their pounds of flesh.

Millard, whose earlier book about Theodore Roosevelt's last safari received raves, is a fine storyteller and a researcher.

Before she demonstrated her knowledge of Garfield's character, I was tempted to skim through the book. I ended up reading every word and every footnote.

******

Red Wing, Minn., author Jacqueline West is out with volume II in her Books of Elsewhere series published for younger readers by Dial Press ($16.99).

I reviewed the first book, called "The Shadows." The new installment is called "Spellbound" and it will likely end up on the New York Times bestseller list as did the first.

If you've read the first book you know that the heroine of the series is Olive Dunwoody, a gawky, dreamy pre-teen.

Her parents are hilariously brainy and don't have a clue about anything but the mathematics they teach at a nearby university. They walk around in a haze of blackboard chalk dust and feel sorry for Olive, whom they deem as not too bright; if only they knew.

Olive has discovered in the old stone manse where they live, a house where every occupant before them has been crazy, that the paintings that line the walls of the old place are alive and she can enter into these mysterious old pictures of French street scenes and dine on croissants.

In the paintings she has lost a friend, Morton, who is now consigned to "Elsewhere." Olive's job is to try to get him released.

"Spellbound" is a fine stew of whimsy, mystery and spooky stuff bubbling on the front burner.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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