Sarah Vowell is a careful historian who gets her details right and retains a wicked clever sense of humor in the process. I first found her work on NPR’s show “This American Life.” Her essays there were always terrific. Her books are just as engaging, placing historical time in the context of current events. This weaving of our history has the effect of highlighting who we were and who we have become. It’s thoughtful and engaging. Vowell is fond of our American ancestors without being sentimental or cloying about them. She isn’t afraid to call them out for their bone-headed decisions. Reading her work is like having a conversation with your most clever friend. I never cease to enjoy that conversation.
This month, I read Vowell’s book about the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French noble who was instrumental in bringing French support to the American Revolution. Published in 2015, the book is part history and part political commentary. At the age of 19, Lafayette came to the American colonies in search of adventure, hooked up with George Washington and never looked back. Vowell tells his story by tracing Lafayette’s progress through the colonies during the Revolutionary War and his return visit to the young United States in 1824-1825. She connects the story of a divided young nation in the 1780s to the divided nation of the contemporary political world.
And she can turn a phrase.
Writing of the Battle of Brandywine, which occurred on Quaker-owned land in 1777, she reflects on the monument to peace that area Quakers erected at the site and writes, “A Quaker in a straw hat is standing next to that quote, so I say hello and we start shooting the breeze about Eisenhower. I mention that Ike also said, “All wars are stupid and they can be started stupidly.” I’m pretty sure the last time I made someone’s face light up like that was when I told my New Deal Democrat grandfather that I got a point taken off an elementary school test for failing to capitalize the word “Republican.”
Pondering the separation with England and its consequence for slaves, Vowell notes that Parliament banned slavery in 1833, 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and then she writes, “You know your country has a checkered past when you find yourself sitting around pondering the humanitarian upside of sticking with the British Empire.”
Like all of Vowell’s work, I found myself laughing and thinking about her words long after the story was complete. In my book, that's a good read.