Within the first two pages of Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” the celebrated history geek warns us her book is no chest-thumping tour through the American War of Independence. Vowell calls the revolutionaries “financially strapped terrorists.” The Founding Fathers, she writes, were “sticklers about taxation without representation” yet failed to see the hypocrisy in seeking military help from a French crown that taxed its peasantry into ruin. To top it off, the new nation hired a wayward “adolescent who barely spoke English” as a major general in their army: 19-year-old Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, a.k.a. the Marquis de Lafayette, “a rich man . . . weirdly rabid to join American forces in combat” who left his “knocked-up teenage wife” in France to find battlefield glory abroad.
Expect a different history lesson with Vowell at the helm. In “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” our winking and acerbic guide delves under the seat cushions of the American Revolution, pointing out the paradoxes, follies, and skullduggery behind our nation’s founding.
A self-avowed “narrative nonfiction wise guy,” Vowell is the author of other ironic journeys through Americana: “Assassination Vacation” (a tour of sites devoted to murdered presidents); “The Wordy Shipmates” (the Puritans); and her last book, “Unfamiliar Fishes” (Hawaii). This time, her narrative is largely seen through the charmingly naive, star-struck viewfinder of Lafayette, whom Vowell calls “a single-minded suck-up prone to histrionic correspondence.”And how he was smitten by we Young Americans and our “[s]implicity of manners, a desire to oblige” and the “sweet equality . . . among everybody,” Lafayette writes, ignoring the slavery around him. “Which was, in 1777, the kind of thing only a white guy could say,” Vowell adds.
Vowell has a knack for distilling American history down to zingers. On his maritime journey from France, Lafayette presumably spent some time “mastering how to conjugate the verb ‘to puke.’ ” Yes, “the melodrama of hucking crates of tea into Boston Harbor continues to inspire civic minded hotheads to this day,” but what about the “hordes of stoic colonial women who simply swore off tea”? Vowell asks. “What’s more valiant: littering from a wharf or years of doing chores and looking after children from dawn to dark without caffeine?” Vowell calls the unnecessary death and suffering at Valley Forge “an embarrassment, a monstrous administrative and humanitarian fiasco,” but also evidence of “growing pains of a new nation” which, founded by rabble rousers, was hardly prepared to run the machinery of war, let alone equip and clothe an army. As one foreign military officer observes, “It is really painful to see these brave men, almost naked.”
As in her past books, the author artfully mines primary source materials for gold. And as before, the Vowell-as-character occasionally pops into the foreground to offer present-day reporting — here, from historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg, Independence Hall, and a Monmouth Battlefield State Park swarming with reenactors. These side narratives barely gain traction, but they do connect the past to the present. A government shutdown while trying to visit Monticello and Yorktown reminds her “we the people have never agreed on much of anything.” American history is “a history of argument, a daily docket of estrangement and tiffs.” Discord is part of this nation’s DNA, from infighting among the Founding Fathers and plots to remove Washington as commander in chief, to the VA’s mistreatment of veterans and the Tea Party’s attempts to starve the government today.
The book’s final third mostly covers the war’s final clashes, with plenty of battle tactics to satisfy war buffs. (Yes, with their fleet of “deep-sea Death Stars,” the French did save our butts, a debt the United States later repaid.) By the end of “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” the young commander has gotten a little lost along the way. At the same time, Vowell emerges from her cloak of irony to remind those of us who haven’t looked at a history book since high school that what Lafayette loved about America, the promise of our “intriguing republic,” has still not fully materialized here, in the land of the free.