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.