I have been looking forward to reading Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, a biography of America’s favorite fighting Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette. I adore Sarah Vowell, if you haven’t already, you really should read Assassination Vacation. She is one of my favorites; a writer / historian / humorist / friend of Jon Stewart AND Ira Glass / all around bad ass. If you aren’t familiar with her voice from This American Life or various television shows, you may not know that she sounds a little bit like a mouse in a box, but you get used to it. I listened to this as an audiobook and it really is the best way to catch all of her subtly snarky humor (she refers to Lafayette taking a shotgun and hunting a menacing wolf by himself at age 8 as ‘hands off parenting’)
The book chronicles the beloved Revolutionary War hero’s years in Washington’s army of course, but also delves into what drove this 19 year old with no combat experience to cross the Atlantic to throw his hat in the ring of a fight he had no real part of. I loved the details about his lifelong friendship with Washington and the letters between him and the wife he abandoned (temporarily) to seek glory. All kinds of familiar names will pop up (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Marie Antoinette, Hamilton – but never enough Hamilton and others) which provides a great new angle and perspective to our thoughts about the history of the beginning of America.
As with all of her writing, Vowell digs deep into the ambivalence and contradictory nature of our democracy, no different in 1776 than 2016. In 1824, when Lafayette returned to America after his valiant attempts at the French Revolution, three quarters of the population of New York came out to welcome him. Three Quarters of the population! I’m trying and failing to come up with anything that would unite us as a people anymore. This is a man who loved freedom and loved America, in fact he named his son George Washington and he is buried in France underneath dirt taken from Bunker Hill. If you are interested in American History you will love this inventive and funny book.
Grade – A-