Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

No one but Sarah Vowell can manage to write about history with wry humor, while managing to also include references to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen. At the same time, she brings the Marquis de Lafayette and the sometimes cranky Revolutionary War figures to life in her latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. And, despite her serious humor, she can still bring tears with her closing sentence; tears for a popular history book.

Vowell puts the story of the Marquis de Lafayette in context, telling the story of his world at the time of the war. He was only a wealthy nineteen-year-old when he defied his father-in-law and the powerful French men of the time, left his pregnant wife behind, and sailed to America. With no ongoing war in Europe, he was eager to volunteer to fight against Britain, France's traditional enemy. The young man who eagerly supported the colonies' demands for freedom would become a hero to the people. When he returned to the United States in 1824, as an old man, he was the Continental Army's last living general. His thirteen-month tour of the twenty-four states became a celebratory victory lap.

In telling Lafayette's story, Vowell tells of the schemes to bring France into the war. She tells of the rebels' need for support and financial aid, ammunition and guns. Readers meet the Americans and French who supported war. And, she reveals all the problems of the Continental Army under George Washington. She introduces the politicians who didn't support him; the generals who schemed for his job; the foreigners who showed up eager for battle, and the British politicians and leaders who made so many mistakes. The story of the war is a story of petty politics.

Sarah Vowell brings an extensive knowledge of history and popular culture to her books. It's the dry comments that combine that knowledge that make her books so appealing. Take the story of the attack on Trenton. "The victory at Trenton boosted morale among the troops, the Congress, and the people to a degree possibly unwarranted by winning back a town in New Jersey, what with it being a town in New Jersey." Then, there's her comment after she relates the account of the loss at the Battle of Brandywine. "Oh, if only that was the last time in America that the extreme left and extreme right broke down and made a mess of things, leaving everyone in the center to suffer." One of my favorite lines in the book.

Vowell is a skilled storyteller, relating little-known or forgotten stories of early history. And, she hinges her historical account on a figure that was revered for generations, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was an impulsive, headstrong, at times disagreeable teenager who wanted his own way when he headed to America. This young foreigner symbolized the determined young country, and became an idol for that country. Vowell's wonderful history, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, tells the story of "the best friend America ever had", a man linked forever to the Revolutionary War, and the founding of the United States.

History? Literature? Popular culture? Sarah Vowell beautifully brings it all together in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. Riverhead Books. 2015. ISBN 9781594631740 (hardcover), 288p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, after I requested it.


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Thanks for reviewing this. As a fan of Vowell's, I put it on hold at the library.

We visited Monticello on the way home from Bouchercon, and naturally Lafayette was discussed. I think my favorite story was how Jefferson had to order 385 (?) bottles of French wine after the visit to replenish his cellar because they drank so many during Lafayette's visit.

Jeff M.

Lesa said...

Big fan of Vowell's, Jeff! I never heard that story. I hope that wasn't just the two of them drinking that much wine (smile). I know you're going to appreciate this book.

Kaye Barley said...

Not heard about this one and it sounds fascinating!!! Thanks, Lesa.

Lesa said...

Love, love, love this book by Sarah Vowell, Kaye. I think you'll enjoy it -history and wit.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

No, it was not just Jefferson and Lafayette drinking. Apparently the latter had his "entourage" with him. It was a fun story.


Marlene Detierro said...

In this book Vowell manages the neat trick of being both funny and stirring. She clearly loves history, and she makes it very easy to join her in that passion.

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Reine said...

Lesa, i'm sorry to be so late in commenting on this book. I think I would love it.

Lafayette's presence was everywhere I grew up from the name of the main street in and between the towns of Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts to a legendary house missing a corner. People still claim the corner was cut out to accommodate Lafayette's carriage in turning a tight corner on one of our narrow streets. They're very keen on him there. I haven't shaken it, obviously.

Lesa said...

That's a story I never heard at Monticello, Jeff. Very good!

Lesa said...

Doesn't she, Marlene? I always loved history, but, you're right. Vowell does make it easy to appreciate history.

Lesa said...

Reine, You've had other things on your mind and heart lately. I think you'd love it, too. I love the story about the house missing a corner! It seems quite a few stories center around Lafayette.

Reine said...

Lesa, I'll send you a URL with a photo of the house from my hometown's website. I'm guessing there is an email here I can use.. if it won't delete email with URLs in them!

Thank you for your kind thoughts. Healing from such things is a heavy business.

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If you like to read history, like intelligent writing, but also like your reading to be fun, Sarah Vowell hits the trifecta with her latest book. This was both a pleasure and a treasure to read and I highly recommend it.