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Killing Lincoln – A Review.

After much internal debate, we decided to give Bill O’Reilly’s book on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a try.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by FoxNews pundit Bill O’Reilly and author / adventurer Martin Dugard is a difficult book to review because of the two prominent names on the dustcover – Lincoln and O’Reilly.

O’Reilly is a polarizing figure in America today. Despite being seen as a conservative by most people, he claims to be a moderate independent. His style is bombastic and confrontational and sometimes that gets him into a spot of being “factually challenged.” His previous books have been successful, although we have always found them to be somewhat superficial. Perhaps it is because O’Reilly is used to seven minute segments where one cannot get into great depth on any subject, but his writing style tends to have short chapters that often skim the surface of any issue.

The second problem is, of course, the other prominent name on the book – Abraham Lincoln. There is no other individual in the world who has had more books written about him than Lincoln. Books on Lincoln have outsold every other topic other than the Bible. When one writes about Lincoln, one is writing in a crowded field where it is difficult to stand out.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” seems to be as polarizing as the Lincoln and O’Reilly themselves. As of this writing, reviewers at Amazon.com have given the book 1,065 “five stars” ratings and 1,071 “one star” ratings. Only 243 people gave the book a two, three or 4 star rating. That means out of the 2,379 total reviews, a little over 10% of the reviews rated the book somewhere in the middle of the available ratings. The other 90% are at polar opposites of the spectrum.

To us that is a indication the controversy and strong opinions surrounding Bill O’Reilly may be driving the reviews.

To that end, we suppose we should say that we are not fans of Bill O’Reilly. Neither are we antagonistic toward him. O’Reilly has a certain style and demeanor that many people enjoy. We are not one of those people. At the same time, his show covers a great many stories and items that other commentators do not discuss. This means that we like the topics of his show, but rarely like the way those topics are presented and discussed by O’Reilly. At best, we are lukewarm to O’Reilly. We neither hate him nor would he be our first choice (or second, third, fourth…) for dinner.

Which finally brings us to the book itself.

In short, the book suffers from an identity crisis. It cannot decide what it is trying to be. It is put forth as a historical, non-fiction look at the assassination of Lincoln, yet documentation and sources are woefully lacking. If it is trying to be a book in the genre of “historical fiction,” it fails there as well as there is no depth to the characters. There is no solid understanding of what motivates the figures to do what they do. The narrative simply falls to “Booth evil, Lincoln good.” That’s it.

The lack of depth is shown in the chapter lengths themselves. Once again, it may be O’Reilly being used to short segments on his show, but the 336 page book has a prologue, an epilogue, an afterward, an index, a list of notes, and 62 chapters. That’s about 5 pages per chapter which is perfect for reading in the bathroom but not exactly the serious study one would hope to find in a non-fiction book.

It should be noted there are factual errors in the book itself. Some are minor and of little consequence. One example is O’Reilly’s account of how alleged conspirator Mary Surratt was treated while in prison is not only wrong, but his account is used to support a fairly large point as to the ultimate fate of the conspirators. It is a glaring error, one that O’Reilly himself has tried to dismiss as “small.”

For us, we found the writing style to be somewhat repetitive, often contradictory, and sometimes confusing. We lost count of how many times we are told Ulysses S. Grant was short. We are repeatedly reminded that Mary Lincoln was buxom. Repeating the same thing adds to the length of the book and not to the understanding or mental image the authors are trying to paint. It is as if the authors expect the reader to have a short attention span. It almost comes across as short chapters and repeating the same points will embed relevant facts.

Nagging inconsistencies are found in the book as well. For example, in chapter 29, O’Reilly describes Mary Todd Lincoln as “short and round, wearing her hair parted straight down the middle.” The accompanying photograph shows Mary Todd Lincoln with her hair parted on the side of her head.

In the end, the lack of depth, inconsistancies and the uncertainty as to what the book wants to be leads it down the path to its ruination.

For the casual person who wants to know something about the Lincoln assassination, it is an acceptable primer, but it there are much better books on the subject.

If one wants a narrative style, there is no better book than Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln was Shot. Bishop recreates the principal players in the Lincoln assassination with depth and caring. Bishop’s chapters each cover an hour in that fateful April day. O”Reilly tries a similar strategy in some of his chapters, but it is a feeling of “been there, done that, and read much better.”

On a strictly historical basis, two Edward Steers books, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators are better written, better researched and better documented than Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever.

For us, Steers’ and Bishop’s books are so well researched and written they can be read over and over. O’Reilly’s book, on the other hand, was less than satisfying the first time, and we probably won’t read any section of it again.

Overall, in the crowded diversity of books on every aspect of the life of Abraham Lincoln, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever leaves much to be desired. It is not the worst book on Lincoln to ever be written, but it certainly is far from the best.

Out of 5 possible stars, we give it two stars.

Our recommendation is to pass on Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever and spend your time and money on either The Day Lincoln was Shot, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln or The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Any one of the three will ultimately be more satisfying, more enjoyable and more educational.



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