Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"'The President Has Been Shot!'"

            When I read nonfiction, I tend to stick to what I know interests me as a learner and reader.  That is why in my blogging, I have read more than one book on the Holocaust: I didn’t even realize that I had chosen more than one book, and that I had another one waiting in the wings to be read.  I tend to stick to learning more about World War II and my other history love, Anne Boleyn and Tudor England.  When I read these books, then, I am armed with all the knowledge that I have gained through my education and my own personal reading experiences.  I can often spot inaccuracies, know the kinds of questions I want to ask of the text, or at the very least know when something just feels off.  In my latest reading pursuit, a nonfiction book about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I found myself completely over my head.  I’ve never been very interested in American history, and so reading a book about this day was quite different for me.  Today, I found myself devouring “The President Has Been Shot!" TheAssassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson.  Much like my children do when they go to read about something new, I found myself grasping at the straws of my own background knowledge, continuously wondering and thinking as I read.  In a way, I’m glad for my lack of knowledge while reading this book.  Because of this, I had to approach it the same way that my kids often approach a book, wearily and with very little actual knowledge of the events that transpired.  I put myself into James Swanson’s hands, hoping that he would knowledgeably guide me through this story.

    James L. Swanson’s “The President Has Been Shot!" The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Published 2013) does not start with the actual assassination.  The book is broken up into two parts—Part One is an introduction to John F. Kennedy, and Part Two covers the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Part One is only 45 pages long and gives the reader a brief introduction into Kennedy’s early life, his political rise, and his presidency.  The reader is given information about things like the Space Race, The Cuban Missile Crisis, and The Bay of Pigs.  Personally, I found this part to be unnecessary, as it did not really extend the reasoning behind Oswald’s assassination.  Part Two is set up different from the first part.  This section of the story covers the five days between November 21 and November 25th, 1963.  James Swanson takes us through Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions before, during, and after the assassination.  The reader is also given insight into the actions of the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy.  Using photographs along the way to extend the text, James L. Swanson attempts to give the reader a complete portrait of the days before, during, and after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

            As I mentioned above, I am not very familiar with this topic.  In the story, James L. Swanson promotes the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone.  There is no mention of conspiracies or anything else until the epilogue starts on page 203.  James L. Swanson promotes the conclusion found by the Warren Commission—Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president, and he did it alone.  James L. Swanson gives us our first insight into this when he says, “Just two days earlier, when Lee Harvey Oswald awoke in Dallas, Texas, on the morning of Tuesday, November 19, 1963, he did not know that within the next three days he would decide to murder the president of the United States”(p.48).  When I read this, I was confused.  It may be my ignorance, but I was always under the impression that we never definitively knew who shot Kennedy.  It seems like every other week the History Channel is running a new special on the Kennedy assassination, promoting a new theory.  I was immediately put off while reading this book, because the story of Lee Harvey Oswald, beyond any doubt, killing Kennedy alone, had never been told to me.

            I know that James L. Swanson addresses this in the epilogue, but I think that it would have been much better served in the front.  Because this topic is one with such debate still, Swanson should have given his readers the reasoning behind his decision upfront.  He should have placed the part of the epilogue that states the Warren Commission’s findings, as well as the part that discusses the different conspiracy theories, before anything else.  Had he placed the following lines at the beginning of the story, I feel I would have been much more at ease: “No one, after all these years, has disproved the key conclusion of the Warren Commission: Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin, and he acted alone.  Just as the conspiracy theorists have questioned the evidence of the assassination, so must a reader question their writings with equal skepticism”(p.207).  The epilogue explained away all my confusions perfectly.  I know that, if I had these some confusions as a reader, many other people will have the same ones as well.

            Because of my initial misgivings about James Swanson’s approach, I found myself questioning things more and more as I read.  For example, on p.71 there is a picture of the 6th floor of the Book Depository, with the caption “Oswald’s perch inside the Book Depository, overlooking Dealey Plaza.”  I found myself questioning whether this was a picture from that time, or if it was a reconstructed picture taken at a later date.  I don’t know if it matters too greatly, but I do think that I wouldn’t have questioned that had it not been for my initial misgivings for the book.  Throughout the book, there were a few occasions where I continued to question James Swanson.  One of the things that I question most about this story is the use of opinion and imagined thoughts in this nonfiction book.  Coming off of having read The Nazi Hunters, which I felt used facts as much as possible and kept opinions quiet, I had a hard time with some of the decisions James Swanson made.  James Swanson gives background information about Lee Harvey Oswald, including the fact that he lived in the Soviet Union and had declared himself a communist.  At one point, Oswald tries to go back to the Soviet Union.  Swanson declares that, “The Russians knew he was an odd duck and were in no hurry to allow him back into their country either”(p.59).  I looked in the notes section, but couldn’t find any explanation of that phrase.  It is amazing how just using the phrase “odd duck” has thrown me off so much.  I simply feel that as a researcher, Swanson should have better, less biased phrases to use.

            Even more than the odd duck statement and the lack of clarity for a picture, there are two scenes in the story that throw me off—Oswald’s decision to kill the President, as well as Oswald’s thoughts the night before the assassination.  As far as I know, having read this book, Oswald told no one about his plan to assassinate Kennedy.  Swanson says, “It is likely that Oswald would never have thought of killing Kennedy at all if the publicized motorcade route had not taken JFK to the doorstep of Oswald’s place of employment.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the president was coming to him!  Oswald thought about it.  He possessed the necessary skill and equipment.  He had learned to shoot in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he owned a rifle.  He could do it.  Yes, he could.  But would he?  And why?”(p.52).  If, like Swanson is saying, Oswald did not think about killing President Kennedy until a few days before the event, how does he know this?  I felt like Swanson did not give me good enough evidence as to how he knew when, where, and how Oswald came to his decision to assassinate President Kennedy.

            The night before Oswald is to kill the President, he goes and visits his wife (whom he is not living with because of his abusive nature).  That night, his wife goes to be intimate with him, and he shoots her down.  Swanson states, “As the night lengthened on November 21, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald could not escape the hopelessness of his life.  He was a lonely, impoverished, and embittered young man who had failed at everything he had ever attempted… And now, on this night, he had failed in love.  He was helpless, drifting toward oblivion.  Tomorrow he would change that”(p.75).  Once again, as far as I know, there is no evidence to the fact that Oswald spent his last night of freedom lying in bed dreaming about the hopelessness of his life.  These questions that I have in my mind have caused me to have some misgivings about this book.

            So was it all bad?  No, I would definitely have to say it was not.  One of the best aspects about
Lyndon B. Johnson's swearing in as President. 
Note that you cannot see the bloodstains because of the angle.
this story were all of the photographs used.  We are given photographs of the Kennedys before the event, as well as Lee Harvey Oswald before.  Then, we are given photographs and still frames of the actual assassination, with James Swanson explaining the photographs along the way.  I found all of the pictures to be fascinating, and I thought that James Swanson did a very good job explaining them.  In the picture where Lyndon B. Johnson is being sworn in as the new President, Swanson explains that Jacqueline Kennedy refused to change out of her outfit and it was blood-stained.  I couldn’t see any bloodstains on the outfit, but Swanson explains that, “Jackie’s appearance horrified Stoughton [the cameraman], who aimed his lens high to crop off the lower part of her body to hide the blood skirt and stockings”(p.146).  This explanation added another dimension to the photograph that I wouldn’t have known on my own.  Of all the things in this book, the photographs are definitely my favorite.  They helped to complete the story of the assassination for me.  There is actually video from that day, called the Zapruder film.  Swanson gives us still frames from that video, but you can watch the entire thing online.  In this 8:34 video clip, the man who acquired the Zaprduer film for Life Magazine discusses the assassination and the acquisition of the film.

Still frame of Zapruder film. 
This story does a great job of explaining what is going on here!
            Another thing that I liked about this story was that it was a fast-paced, exciting read.  Much like The Nazi Hunters, I think that this is a book that will help young people get excited about history.  This is most certainly not like a textbook, and it reads like an action novel.  Swanson takes ten pages to describe the 8 seconds when he shot President Kennedy, and I found myself trying to get through the pages as fast as I could, despite already knowing the ultimate ending.  I was on the edge of my seat as the first bullet missed, the second bullet didn’t hit anything vital, and then the final bullet ended the life of a President.  We need more high-interest nonfiction like this, but I think we also need to be careful about believing absolutely everything that we read.  If we don’t trust the author, it makes it hard to believe anything that they say, and then reading the entire book is all but a waste of time.

            This is not James L. Swanson’s first book.  His Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, was awarded with an Edgar Award for the “best nonfiction crime book of the year.”  Based off of that novel, he wrote a Young Adult book called Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.  He definitely does his research and has been awarded for being a great nonfiction writer.  The back matter of the book gives us an extensive bibliography, as well as a notes page.  He even has a section entitled, “For Further Reading,” which gives the reader a starting point for finding more information about John F. Kennedy.  For us conspiracy theorists, there’s even a bibliography that gives a list of the most popular conspiracy books.

            Overall, I have misgivings about "The President Has Been Shot!".  I feel like if I had more background knowledge about the Kennedy assassination, I may have been a little less confused.  I still feel, though, that is James L. Swanson’s job to clear up those confusions for the reader.  For young adult readers who are interested in the Kennedy assassination, I would recommend this book, but hope that they will be able to recognize places where there are opinions and author reimaginings, not facts.
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