Like many people, I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack non-stop and learning more about the American Revolutionary War than I ever did in school. Lafayette is easily one of the coolest characters in the musical, but also in real life. I’d been meaning to get to one of Sarah Vowell’s books, so when she published Lafayette in the Somewhat United States in October, it was kismet.
Vowell tells the story of the teenaged Marquis de Lafayette leaving his family in France to join the American troops fighting against the British. He was from a long line of soldiers and wasn’t about to miss out on the “fun” just because France was living through a few peaceful years. He offered his soldiering services for free and was both smart and brave. He believed in the American cause and eventually the entire country came to love him, including George Washington. His service was a crucial part of the Siege of Yorktown which ended British land operations in North America. When he eventually returned to the US as an older man in 1824, two-thirds of New York showed up to greet him. Just like today, America was fractured and nobody could agree on anything. The only thing they could agree on was their love of this one Frenchman.
I wish all my history books in school had been as interesting as Vowell’s. She has an amazing ability to write history so it comes alive and connects to the modern world around us. She mixes her experiences in researching Lafayette throughout the book in a way that makes it feel like the reader is tagging along on her quest. Some of the most poignant parts of the book happen when she’s interviewing people alive today about their connections to this man who lived centuries ago.
Vowell has worked on This American Life and voiced animated characters so I figured the audiobook would be a winner and I wasn’t disappointed. Because she’s a practiced narrator and her experiences intertwine with the narrative, the audio version was perfection. She also got a great cast of famous extras to voice the quotes of the people she interviewed and historical figures. The cast includes John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof. They were all great additions, but I have to single out Nick Offerman who narrated the George Washington quotes. I honestly can’t think of a single person who would do better to narrate GW and the perfection of it made me smile every time his voice came on.