Skip to main content

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States


Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly a history buff. Maybe it’s because my high school history classes were less than inspiring, or maybe it’s because my dad is a historian and I wanted to branch out, or maybe I’ve just always found history to be much more compelling through the lens of fiction than of too-dry accounts of wars and treaties and such. But leave it to Sarah Vowell, longtime contributor to the radio show “This American Life” and author of previous books like THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT, to help bring history the life and relevance (and often humor) that I miss in other nonfiction works.

In her latest book, LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES, Vowell explores the history of the American Revolution through a somewhat unlikely hero who wound up being a wildly popular personage (think of how many place names you know that were named after him). The Marquis de Lafayette was a petulant teenager, eager for fame and glory, when he abandoned his pregnant wife and fled his native France to join the incipient revolution on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Kudos to [Vowell] for choosing to devote her talents to telling the story of our country’s founding in a way that is fresh, engaging and entirely original."

Before long, Lafayette’s eagerness, complete disregard for personal safety, and genuine affection for the incipient Americans (especially George Washington) had catapulted him into the position of major general in the Continental Army. His identity as a member of the French nobility didn’t hurt either. Even though an alliance between the French monarchy and the anti-monarchist colonists didn’t seem to make much sense on paper, Lafayette and a handful of other Frenchmen were able to broker an alliance that, in many ways, was responsible for the Americans’ eventual success. Lafayette become a phenomenally popular figure, greeted like a real celebrity when he returned to the United States later in life.

Vowell recounts this trajectory in easy-to-follow accounts of battles and strategies, helpfully (and humorously) illustrated with caricatures of the major players (very helpful to me, who can barely remember my high school American history, which is probably the last place I encountered most of this stuff). She includes plenty of quotes from primary sources, especially from Lafayette’s numerous, often quite grandiose, letters. Equally engaging are her occasional asides to bring the history into conversation with the present day --- whether through her reflections on her own trip to Colonial Williamsburg or her observations on how the profoundly divided nature of many of the Founding Fathers’ negotiations seemed to presage our current congressional stagnation and infighting.

LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES might well be written for non-history buffs like me, people who like a good story but find lengthy historical accounts stifling. Above all, Vowell is a great storyteller. Kudos to her for choosing to devote her talents to telling the story of our country’s founding in a way that is fresh, engaging and entirely original.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 23, 2015

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
by Sarah Vowell

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2016
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399573100
  • ISBN-13: 9780399573101