Monday, September 12, 2016
Book Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
When I originally moved to New York in 2000, I had no problem pronouncing Houston Street right (How-ston. Not Hue-ston). But Lafayette Street gives me troubles. I am from the South. And in the South, that name is pronounced La-FAY-ette. Heavy emphasis on the FAY. (Seriously, in my defense, the Sheriff in my hometown of Nashville while I was growing up was named Lafayette and he went by Fate, as that's how the middle of his name sounded. People would seriously look at you funny if you pronounced it the French way.) Listening to this book has gone a long way toward correcting my pronunciation.
During the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans went insane about the French and our silly Congress wasted time renaming French Fries "Freedom Fries" among other inane anti-French activities. My mother on the other hand railed against these idiots who didn't appreciate General Lafayette and the French without whose help during the Revolutionary War, we'd be royalists today. And it's true. I knew that much. But I didn't really know anything else.
In Ms. Vowell's book, history comes alive. Washington goes from being a wooden figurehead to a real live, sometimes annoyed person. Lafayette, I discovered, was shockingly young (19), but also a very team-player guy who frequently had to take on roles he was way overqualified to make some older, unqualified guy with connections feel better, and he always did it cheerfully and well. And seriously, if it weren't for Lafayette, Washington may well have lost. Along the way I learned lots of fun trivia such as that before being a general, Knox (of Fort Knox fame) was an independent bookseller. I think I like Ms. Vowell's writing so much because she loves our country and she loves history, but not to the point where she views it through rose-colored glasses. She still calls out the Founding Fathers for deeming slaves to be 3/5 of a person and other batty things politicians have done over the years. But she loves them for all their blockheadedness.
My favorite line from the book:
“The scene of Washington cussing out Charles Lee was for some reason not included in the series of bronze illustrations of the Battle of Monmouth on the monument at the county courthouse. Even though it was the most New Jersey–like behavior in the battle, if not the entire war.” As a newly minted New Jersey-ite (New Jerseyan? New Jerseyer?), I greatly appreciated that.
As usual, hilarious and informative. If you like Sarah Vowell, she hits it out of the park on this one.
I checked this audiobook download out of the library via Overdrive.