Lafayette in The Somewhat United States
This book was recommended to me by Rachel Noleff. In January 2018 she was in a car accident. She is currently in The University of Toledo Medical Center battling for her life. You can support her in her recovery on her families Go Fund Me page: https://www.gofundme.com/hu3yd-medical-expenses-from-accident
“Lafayette in The Somewhat United States” by Sarah Vowell is allegedly about America’s favorite non-American, American hero: Marquis de Lafayette. Without the contributions of a teenage Lafayette, the Unites States of America wouldn’t exist. Many American’s don’t know that the French won the revolutionary war for us. For the French, it was less about the idea of liberty, and more about sticking it to England. In the end, it was a poor gamble for the French King Louis XVI who lost his head in 1793 partly due to the debt incurred from aiding the Americans. (The US eventually returned the favor in 1917). The story of Marquis de Lafayette and the French involvement in the war for independence is one of fascination, which makes this book all the more disappointing.
The title “Lafayette in The Somewhat United States” is a bait and switch. Marquis de Lafayette is relegated to being a side character. In reality the book tries to shoehorn the entirety of the American revolution in between the authors personal anecdotes. Lafayette struggles to find relevancy in 274 pages of tangents and side-plots with a particular focus on George Washington. While describing the George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, Ms. Vowell meanders into a tidbit that Rob Lowe’s great-great grandfather was captured by the first President. This fun fact has nothing to do with the books namesake.
Huge swaths of “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” have nothing to do with Lafayette and instead focus on the back-door diplomacy between the Continental Congress and France. While behind-the-scenes diplomacy is critical to understanding the revolution, Ms. Vowell robs the reader of discovering realities along-side Lafayette. The reader is better served by information trickling in as characters discover it themselves. In the early pages, it’s revealed that Lafayette was surprised to find British loyalists in the States. He, along with most of Europe, believed the rejection of the crown united all Americans. If this discovery was withheld until later pages, it would have a stronger impact on the reader, just as it impacted Lafayette himself.
Ms. Vowell jackhammers personal asides to make points that should be relegated to the conclusion or eliminated entirely. The Battle of Brandywine is disrupted by the inclusion of the authors present day adventures through the region for 3 pages only to return to the battle without a proper transition. As a reader, I don’t care about how the author went to Williamsburg or that she watched a “historically detailed” puppet show. Maybe some readers enjoy the constant time-traveling between the 1770’s and today. I am not one of them.
Disunity is Unity. The recurring theme in the book is that no matter how much things change, everything stays the same. Our country has never been united, not even in the war against England. The cherry-picked example is Texas Senator Ted Cruz leading the government shutdown in 2013. Ms. Vowell argues, however, that such disunity is one of our founding strengths as a nation. On this point, we agree. The liberty we enjoy is baked into our founding ideals that to be free we must not suffocate the words and actions we find to be disagreeable. Our government’s structure exists to allow such disagreements to flourish which allows for compromise at its best, and beatings with a cane at it’s very worst. Egged on by social media, our politicians are running towards the cane, only this time the victim will be we the people instead of Senator Sumner.
The book intentionally lacks structure, which while intentional, does a great disservice to readers. Great men and women have turning points and eras in their lives and Lafayette is no different. If the book had acts separating childhood, meddling in France, fighting with revolutionaries, and flight from the French Revolution, it would add clarity and significance to key points in Lafayette’s life. There are better biographies out there, but if you are looking for an easy to read overview of America’s fight for independence, “Lafayette in The Somewhat United States” is a great place to start.
The United States will always be indebted to Marquis de Lafayette and the French people. Like all friendships, America and France have gone through times of triumph to lows such as renaming French fries to “Freedom Fries.” Parodying the French as cowards who surrender at the sight of hostilities is pure buffoonery. France is our first ally, and continues to be one of our greatest friends. Let us not forget that Lady Liberty who graces New York harbor was a gift from our friends across the pond. The 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s passing is arriving in 2034. It serves as good a time as any to celebrate a man who defied his king to pair up with scrappy underdogs for the ideals of liberty and freedom.
Lafayette in The Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Published by Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (October 4, 2016)