Subversive historian Sarah Vowell offers another idiosyncratic chronicle of our nation’s coming-of-age with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. This lively account of the Marquis de Lafayette and the American Revolution is of a piece with Vowell’s previous books, which include Assassination Vacation (2005), a tour of sites dedicated to murdered American presidents, and The Wordy Shipmates (2008), a raucous look at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These seem like sober subjects, but Vowell enlivens the proceedings with her prickly persona, her thing for slang and her taste for recondite factoids of Americana.
With her new book, Vowell delivers a fascinating portrait of Lafayette as a dashing young French aristocrat who believed in the cause of the American colonists. Driven by a desire to make a name for himself and by a loathing for the British, Lafayette sailed to America, where he served in Washington’s army, befriending the founding father and becoming his confidant. Through the filter of the Frenchman’s story, Vowell examines the culture of the Revolution. She goes in-depth on the rifts between the Loyalists and the Patriots, between the Continental Congress and the army, and augments the trip back in time with incidents from her travels to historical spots. During a visit to Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, where Lafayette was wounded in 1777, she takes in a re-enactment of the Frenchman’s story presented as—of all things—a puppet show.
The enjoyment Vowell seems to derive from poking around in America’s obscure corners is part of what makes her historical narratives vital. In tracing history’s circuitous path, she demonstrates how we got where we are today—and sheds light on where we might be heading next.