Sarah Vowell’s books defy easy classification, which can make it annoying when people ask you about them. They are part history, part travelogue, part personal essay and yet that still does not seem to cover it. Her latest book, just out in paperback, concerns the relationship between the United States and the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman whose support was so key during the American Revolution.
Vowell begins fifty years after the start of the war, when Lafayette returned to the United States for a jubilee celebration, taking a grand tour of the the nation his efforts had helped to establish. While in the US he reunited with the still-living Jefferson and Adams and was honored all over America, as evidenced by all the cities, streets, and schools named in his honor.
While Vowell does travel to Lafayette’s birthplace and other significant sites in France, the bulk of her travels take place at Revolutionary War battlefields as she tracks the paths of Lafayette and his close friend George Washington. Vowell isn’t a typical historian, but she does give the reader a real sense of the precariousness of the American quest for independence. From the utter inability of the Congress to feed, clothe, and shelter the militia to the in-fighting and bickering that nearly lead to the replacement of George Washington Vowell makes it clear that there were so many ways the war could’ve gone belly-up. She also makes it abundantly clear how screwed the patriots would have been without the help of France.
While it’s clear that Vowell has a vast knowledge of revolutionary history, her description of those events tends to become repetitive and benumbing. The book is also a fairly superficial look at the life of its subject. I would have liked to learn more about Lafayette’s life after the American revolution, but Vowell’s short book essentially with the Battle of Yorktown.
Vowell’s books aren’t for everyone with their conversational tone and her unrepentant liberalism, but I’ve always enjoyed them for the depth of her knowledge and the connections she makes across eras. While Lafayette in the Somewhat United States doesn’t quite match up to her best (that would be Assassination Vacation) it is still a worthwhile look at the beginnings of this country.