Sunday, October 2, 2016

Staff Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Anyone who has read one of Sarah Vowell's books knows how funny she is. Laugh-out-loud funny at times. But when it comes to American history, she knows her stuff. Hers is a fresh take on what we all learned in school: the Puritans on the Mayflower, our past presidents, the Salem witch trials, the Civil War. Sometimes she goes farther afield: in one book, Unfamiliar Fishes, she explores the events leading up to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Vowell is snarky, irreverent, and a whole lot of fun. Always droll, never dull, often remarkably astute, she breathes new life into old stories.

In Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, her most recent book, she really shows off her chops. I can't imagine how much reading, research, and travel must have gone in to writing this book. Vowell seems at ease with all the major battles of the Revolutionary War, which went on for eight long years, and with all the key players, from military leaders like George Washington and Benedict Arnold to members of the Continental Congress. Her focus is on Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette, a 19-year-old French aristocrat who crossed the ocean in 1776 to take up the cause of American liberty. Swashbuckling and debonair, he became not only a highly capable general but a sort of surrogate son to Washington, who was crazy about him.

The book opens with Lafayette's return to the U.S. in 1824, at age 67, for a grand tour of all (by then) 24 states. Americans still adored him for his contributions to the cause of freedom and he was greeted by cheering crowds everywhere he went. By that time, he had not only survived the American Revolution (he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine) but also emerged neck intact from "the Terror" -- the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, with its flames, pitchforks, and flashing guillotine. Vowell then turns back in time to the trajectory of the American Revolution, interspersing her own clever assessment of historical events with anecdotes about people she meets and sites she visits while conducting her extensive research.

She is so amiable in her snarkiness that I always finish her books wishing I could hang out with her. I also laugh and learn a lot along the way. By the close of this one, I understood for the very first time just how much the French helped us win the War of Independence (something we might have done well to remember during the Freedom-fries fiasco of 2003) and I had a much better appreciation of the reason so many American cities, towns, counties, hills, rivers, bridges, parks, schools, boats, and buildings were named in honor of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Cautionary Note: I better add a note about the audio version. When you hear Vowell for the first time (she narrates her own books), you may well be a bit turned off, especially if you're just coming off a super-fine audiobook narrator. For all that Vowell's such a big radio personality and has done so much voice and acting work, her high-pitched, lispy, little-kid voice can be dismaying, but I promise if you power through the first chapter or two, you'll cease to notice. It won't bother you at all. You may even come to find it endearing.

~Ann, Adult Services 

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