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May 24, 2016

Lafayette In the Somewhat United States

LafayetteLafayette In the Somewhat United States

By: Sarah Vowell

“How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protesters in the history of the world?”

High school history students know that the Marquis de Lafayette was the most important French guy in the American Revolution. That’s why so many cities, streets, and parks are named after him. But do they know that he was a teenager himself when he was named as a major general for the Continental Army? And that he snuck out of France against the King’s direct orders, abandoning his pregnant (teen) wife, to sail to America on a ship he bought on the sly? The aristocrat who was once laughed off the dance floor by Marie Antoinette, wanted to fight for American independence so badly, he enthusiastically burned the bridges behind him to do so.

With Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Sarah Vowell expertly recounts the story of the enthusiastic French soldier and the revolution he cut his teeth on. With her signature wit, and the perfect amount of shade, she creates a portrait of a young Lafayette that does nothing to hide his flaws, or those of the Revolution itself, but leaves the reader with a lingering affection for both. Lafayette’s story runs side by side with that of a perpetually disjointed Continental Congress. Lafayette witnessed freezing, starving soldiers, and underhanded campaigns to oust General Washington, and the effects of a Congress that struggled (or simply refused) to pay for the war their ideals demanded. Tales of Lafayette’s buoyant jois de vivre are tempered at every turn by the absurd, and sometimes infuriating minutiae of the American Revolution.

Vowell takes side trips into the present and the historical locales she visited for her research. Her experiences and conversations bring to question the ways that we record, remember, and retell our history. She visits reenactments, monuments, and parks, and has conversations with Quakers and historians, and a few Quaker historians. Her genuine curiosity and conversational tone makes it feel like we are all in the car with her, chatting about our fascinating history, on the way to the next battle field.

Listening to the audiobook of Lafayette becomes a whole new experience. As it is read by the author, once you hear it, you will never again be able to read one of Sarah Vowell’s books without her singular voice in your ears. She is joined by a cast of character actors who read the quotations from the many historical figures. Nick Offerman’s George Washington alone is reason enough to give this book a listen.

Review By:  Addie Matteson