Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Marquis is determined to be in the way of danger

I bet you're tired of me talking about Hamilton. Haha too bad. But let's shift gears slightly and talk about Lafayette. Specifically the new Sarah Vowell Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.
When I was giving this book a rating on Goodreads I almost gave it 5 stars, but then I thought about it and realized as a book it's really more 4 star and that extra star is really because it finally convinced me I need to listen to Hamilton and OMG THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER. And apparently biographies about figures from the revolution are my thing now? And how fortuitous to Vowell that she puts out this book right as Hamilton is blowing up. Well done.

I've liked Sarah Vowell ever since Alice sent me a copy of The Wordy Shipmates and thus it's fitting that I got this copy of Lafayette from her as well*.

Vowell said she began researching Lafayette back in 2003, when the US was throwing a hissy fit and doing things like renaming french fries "freedom fries" and other things that make me eye-roll. As she says
If the French had forgotten America's help in World War II - and they had not; they just opposed a preemptive war in the Middle East based on faulty intelligence that most Americans would end up regretting anyway - it seemed obvious that Americans had forgotten France's help in our war for independence in general and the national obsession with Lafayette in particular.
And I am in that group, cos I did not realize how much America really did owe France for their help during the revolution, to the point that it could be argued that France won the navel battle at Yorktown that allowed the Continental Army to win the war on land.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on Lafayette's interactions with the US, the insane lengths he went to to fight in the revolution and the work he did to bring guns and ships to an army that needed all the help it could get. Vowell also discusses lots of other important figures from the war (Rochambeau, Knox, Greene, Von Steuben) that I either never learned about or learned about but forgot (both equally possible, though I'll assume most of the fault is on the former).

Then of course she also paints a picture of the historical figures I do know that paints them in a much more human light. Like when "His Excellency" George Washington went off on General Charles Lee ("I'm a General, wheeeeeee!") for his retreat at the Battle of Monmouth.
General Charles Scott of Virginia, who had served with both Washington and Lee in the French and Indian War, claimed to hear the whole thing, getting a kick out of His Excellency's meltdown: "Yes, sir, he swore on that day till the leaves shook on the trees. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing, before or since. Sir, on that memorable day, he swore like an angel from Heaven."
It's easy to forget that people in history are just that: people. Lafayette was so young and acted like a kid in his early 20s. Because hey, Marquis or not, he was a kid in his early 20s. And then I realized how much of history is decided who people who were young and stupid, and I waiver between being terrified that THESE are the people deciding the fate of the world, but then also feeling better about society in general. Because they didn't screw things up too badly. As Vowell says: "That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart."

As I said at the top of this post, I gave this book 5 stars, though some of that is for Hamilton. I'd say the book is worth about 4 and 1/2 stars. It's entertaining in the way that Vowell books are, focusing on the human element of these historical figures. Very fun book and writing this I kind of want to read it again.

Gif rating:
*Unrelated to Lafayette but related to Sarah Vowell, Tom is also a Vowell fan. He recently read Assassination Vacation which led to the vaguely disturbing text "Reading the assassination book came in handy this morning." (He went on to clarify that he was able to sound smart by telling people the plaque they were looking at about the shooting of a president did NOT result in a death. Because the person was trying to shoot Teddy Roosevelt and haha, like bullets can stop him.)

Title quote from page 119

Vowell, Sarah. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Riverhead Books, 2015. ARC