I haven’t read much of Sarah Vowell’s stuff in the past. I picked up Assassination Vacation over the summer when I was in a really heavy essay phase, and I enjoyed it well enough. But it wasn’t enough to get me to go hear her talk at ALA Annual this past summer, and I didn’t exactly rush out to read this the moment it came out. I guess I thought I mostly just didn’t care about the subject and that it wouldn’t have anything to say to me.
Well, this was before I like a good chunk of the country became obsessed with the Hamilton cast album. But since we have and since we did, my interest in the Marquis de Lafayette has increased by a large margin. So I picked up this book from the new shelf at the library where I work as I was headed out the door for Christmas vacation. And because I thought it would be a humorous light read like Assassination Vacation, I went ahead and picked up as a nonfiction palette cleanser after finishing the phenomenal Vicious.
First off, this book isn’t essays, and it doesn’t have chapters. How am I supposed to deal with this? I never quite knew when I could put it down. Second, because I picked up the book just because it was Sarah Vowell, I didn’t realize it was a biography. Which is fine. I just don’t read a lot of biographies.
Where this book shines is in giving a much-overlooked French perspective to the American Revolution. First off, however bad off you think the Continental Army was, they were way worse off. They perennially did not have enough shoes, clothes, or food to go around. It reminded me how close the American Revolution and the Seven Years War were to each other in time and how, geopolitically speaking, the American Revolution was really a skirmish between two superpowers that had actively hated each other for centuries. The birth of America was practically collateral damage.
Then there are tidbits about how we Americans were not quite the masters of our fate that we always suppose ourselves to be. At the fall of Yorktown (which I’ve always assumed was in New York because it has York but is totally in Virginia), there were twice as many French soldiers there as Americans. And that made it especially classy when the British tried to surrender to the French and the French made them surrender to the Americans because while it was America’s war, the French totally ruled the day. But even before Yorktown happened, there was the naval Battle of the Chesapeake that paved the way for the Yorktown victory. And who was fighting? France and Britain. Because Lord knows we didn’t have a navy. When Vowell is exploring these sorts of things, the book has a compelling interest that keeps things moving.
Now, my favorite parts of the book are when she fast-forwards to the present and talks about exploring for Lafayette related monuments or sightseeing and talking to re-enactors and seeing how things are remembered in the present day. But these instances have a bit of distance between them in the book, and I was always left wishing that they were a bit longer and that I could learn more about that quest rather than the young Lafayette’s hunt for glory. Oh, and it struck me as odd that even though this was America-centric look at Lafayette, it barely touched on his life post-Revolution, only painting it in the broadest of strokes. He lived to a ripe old age, but it seems that he had a lot more adventures that potentially could have been included. But maybe it’s outside the scope of the book. What do I know.
But the principal problem with this book doesn’t really have anything to do with this book. It more has to do with the fact that I am just not that interested in American history. I never have been. Maybe it’s because I have uniquely bad classes in the subject. Maybe it’s because I like my history like I like my cheese: with a little bit of depth and age. Maybe it’s just because I find other countries more exciting. But the subject has never done a lot for me, and this remains true with Vowell’s book. While it certainly added to my store of knowledge and gave me a new perspective on the war, it hasn’t inspired me to delve any deeper into the subject.
JMF Rating: 6/10
’til next time,