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Audiobook Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States


Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States, a country that he so loved that he had risked his life and fortune by leaving France to fight for its independence from the British. It was fifty years after the signing of the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, and thirty years since Lafayette had last set foot in America. Yet, on his entrance into New York harbor 80,000 people, two thirds of the city’s population at the time, turned out to greet him. He was the Continental Army’s last surviving general, and New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, still remembered, and still loved Lafayette. He went on to visit all 24 states of the then Union, meeting rapturous receptions everywhere he went.

In Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Sarah Vowell takes on the story of Lafayette. In 1777 the Continental Congress named him a major general in the Continental Army. He was only 19, arriving in Philadelphia just a month before. The Congress had seen and rejected many French military officers who had been recruited by the American agent Silas Dean, and who had high expectations for pay and position. But Lafayette’s aristocratic title (with its implication that his presence may influence support from the King of France), his English language skills (limited though they were), and his offer to serve at his own expense swayed them. 

You may know Vowell from her earlier books, or from her appearances on This American Life, or perhaps from her acting, including her voiceover work as Violet Parr in The Incredibles and its sequel. She brings her trademark snark, wit and a good deal of research to the book. She does a great job of laying out the story of Lafayette’s contributions to the Revolution, and providing an overview of the progression of the War itself.

But when she interlaces that story with vignettes about her research, or comparisons to the realities of 2015 (when the book came out) they only work some of the time. Part of the problem is that it's now 2022 and the US of the last year of the Obama presidency seems like a long, long time ago.

Another thing that I found disappointing is that Vowell doesn’t provide  any real depth to the story of Lafayette himself. Yes, she does paint him as a rich, bored aristocrat, an absent and uncaring husband, and an immature young man seeking glory. All of which may have been true when 19 year old Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, aka the Marquis de Lafayette, showed up in Philadelphia looking to be hired to help lead the fight against the British. But despite plenty of facts about the progress of the war and Lafayette’s role in it, the book doesn’t contain much about how all this impacted and matured Lafayette himself.

So while I did get a kick out of this book and found myself smiling more than once, ultimately I ended up disappointed that a book named after Lafayette wasn’t more enlightening about the man himself.

On the other hand, Vowell’s accounting of the final battle of the Revolution at Yorktown serves as a good reminder to Americans of the debt we owe the French for our independence. It is quite probable that without the assistance of the French Navy we would not have won the war.

If you are a fan of Vowell’s and haven’t yet had a chance to read this book I do recommend the audiobook version. Vowell does the bulk of the narrating herself in her inimitable voice, assisted by a cast of characters handling quotes from some of the key figures - including Nick Offerman as George Washington.

RATING: Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐

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Title: A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present

Author: Mark Forsyth

Publisher: Tantor Media

Publish Date: September 30, 2018

ISBN-13: 9798200402687

Publisher’s List Price: Not Sold directly by the Publisher