2015; 275 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : History; Non-Fiction. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
Quick! How many battles in the American Revolutionary War can you name? Well, let’s see now. Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and Yorktown. That’s about it.
Not bad, now how many generals from that war can you name? Well there’s Washington. Hmm. And Cornwallis. Oh, and that French guy, Lafayette.
And what did Lafayette do in the war? Umm. I don’t know. Brought us the Statue of Liberty perhaps? You know, maybe I should read a book about it.
What’s To Like...
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is Sarah Vowell’s wonderful book about a subject we Americans ought to, and usually don’t, know much about – our war of Independence. It is aptly titled, since Vowell focuses on both the conflict itself, and one of the most fascinating characters associated with it.
The first part of the book deals with events leading up to the war, which was something that almost nobody wanted – not England, not France, and not most of the colonists. Wars are expensive, something none of the European powers could afford. The French were unsure of the Americans’ resolve. The English felt it was highly unlikely that they could win a war fought so far from their homeland. And the colonies were reluctant to supply the massive amounts of supplies – food, clothing, blankets, weapons and ammo, boots, etc. – to equip the ragtag army that spent mosto of their time running away from the Redcoats, rather than fighting them.
Vowell blends all this in with the early biography of Lafayette, including trivia such as the fact that his dad was killed by a British cannonball, and his mother died when he was 12, leaving him young, but very, very rich.
The historical aspects are presented objectively. Washington’s blunders – and there are quite a few – are not covered up. Neither are the arrogance and complacency of the British. And both sides were hampered significantly by internal politicking and petty jealousies. But through it all, Lafayette’s optimism, idealism, and loyalty to the cause shines like a beacon in the gloom.
If you’ve read any other Sarah Vowell books, you know she has a penchant for tying historical events to present-day issues, and that’s true here as well. The USA may be a divided country right now, with the Republican hardliners trying to shut the government down. But Vowell’s point is that we’ve always been like this.
There are no chapters in the book, which I found odd. But there are a bunch of caricatures dispersed throughout the book to break the tedium, the last one of which will make you gasp. And the author gets a tip-of-the-hat for name-dropping one of her friends, Wesley Stace, who will be more familiar to some of us by his stage nane: John Wesley Harding.
Kewlest New Word…
Annus Mirabilis (n.; phrase) : a remarkable or auspicious year.
Others : Frenemies
The newly dubbed General Lafayette was only nineteen years old. Considering Independence Hall was also where the founders calculated that a slave equals three-fifths of a person and cooked up an electoral college that lets Florida and Ohio pick our presidents, making an adolescent who barely spoke English a major general at the age I got hired to run the cash register at a Portland pizza joint was not the worst decision ever made there.
On the one hand, the French rookie got himself shot in the calf in his very first battle. On the other hand, he was so gung ho that he cut short his recuperation and returned to duty with one leg in a boot and the other wrapped in a blanket. (loc. 58)
The reason the American commander was waiting around to react was that, in 1777, Washington’s plan to outsmart and outlive the enemy was to try not to die. This was the so-called Fabian strategy, named for the Roman general Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator (“the delayer”), who spent years wearing down the deadlier Carthagenians by retreating every time his opponents seemed poised to prevail, thus holding the Roman army together; basically, Fabius annoyed his enemies to death. (loc. 1052)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States sells for $13.99 at Amazon, which makes it the most expensive Sarah Vowell e-book out there. Her other 6 books there are all in the $7.99-$12.99 range.
You know your country has a checkered past when you find yourself sitting around pondering the humanitarian upside of sticking with the British Empire. (loc. 2033)
The quibbles are minor. There are a host of French functionaries to meet and greet. I didn’t bother to jot their names and roles down, and it eventually got confusing trying to recall who did what, and how they viewed the American upstarts. A glossary might have been nice. Then again, I could’ve taken better notes.
The book ends at the logical point – Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. But there was still a formidable British army en route by sea from New York in a belated attempt to save Cornwallis. I never did figure out why they didn’t attempt to rescue their captured brethren.
But I pick at nits. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was a fantastic read – from the lesser-known battles (such as Brandywine), to the miserable wintry conditions at Valley Forge, to lots of ink devoted to one of my personal Revolutionary War heroes, Nathanael Greene. And I’m crazy about John Wesley Harding’s music.
9 Stars. Highly recommended to lovers of History. Subtract 1 star if you’re a teabagger; you’re not going to enjoy Ms. Vowell’s asides. Better stick to Glenn Beck’s and Bill O’Really’s faux history.