30 December 2015
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes, a humorous account of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette—the one Frenchman we could all agree on—and an insightful portrait of a nation's idealism and its reality.
On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.
Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a humorous and insightful portrait of the famed Frenchman, the impact he had on our young country, and his ongoing relationship with some of the instrumental Americans of the time, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and many more.
Sarah Vowell has a new book! Actually, it came out back in October but it took until December for me to get ahold of an audiobook - because that's the way to put a Sarah Vowell book in your brain. I love her voice and reading style and she gets a whole load of actor (and sometimes non-actor, cf Stephen King as Abraham Lincoln in the audiobook of Assassination Vacation) buddies to voice different historical and contemporary people.
A book about Lafayette publishing during the phenomenal run that is the musical Hamilton is like the best thing ever. Impetuous French teenage aristocrat showing up to offer his services to the fetal United States (which aren't the United States yet since the Revolutionary War wasn't over and the Constitution just a twinkle in the Founders' eyes) - I don't think it's was ever emphasized in my history classes that Lafayette was so young. It is really interesting how hard it was to keep the Continental Army from starving to death and how hard it was for France to get promised men and money to America (and then the US stuck its head in the sand during the French Revolution). A really interesting story.
However, I don't think Sarah Vowell's usual format of historical-event-contemporary-aside-historical-event worked as well here. It works amazingly well in Assassination Vacation because it's structured more around her travels. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States has a much more linear structure based around Lafayette's life so jumping in and out doesn't work as well. I was also a bit disappointed that so much of the book focused on the Revolutionary War (despite the title, that should have tipped me off) but very little on Lafayette's 1824 American tour. But still, a fun book to listen to, definite recommend if you have a road trip.
Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from the library via Overdrive.