Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


24602886On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette’s arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.


I’m not a big audiobook person but the chances of my listening to one go up if it’s:

a – nonfiction
b – funny
c – read by the author
d – …who is a contributor to This American Life

It might be the narrowest of genres but it rarely fails. 😉  I hope to break out of this rut soon but until then I’ll indulge in Vowell’s delightful history about Lafayette’s time in America.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to using my e-library’s Overdrive app.  Lesson learned – hit the bookmark button whenever there’s something interesting.  I enjoyed so many parts of this book that I just can’t recall now.  :/

Let’s stick with what I do remember – Lafayette is awesome.  He came over to the not yet United States at the tender age of 19, leaving behind his wife, baby daughter (eep) and angry parents because he wanted to be part of the American Revolution.  By using his charm (as well as paying his own way) he became an important officer in General Washington’s army, leading forces in several key battles.  Along the way he made many friends and quite the name for himself, so much so that when he visited the US 40 years later he spent 16 months traveling the country, attending some kind of dinner or ceremony in his honor every day.  Every. Day.  That Lafayette Street or Lafayette Park or Lafayetteville near you?  It was probably named then.

Vowell does a wonderful job weaving this story in her signature relatable style.  While the narrative focuses on the years of the American Revolution we also join Vowell as she visits historical sites and muses how the state of US politics hasn’t changed that much over the past two hundred years.

The audiobook is spiced up with people you probably know in cameo appearances as the founding fathers and Lafayette himself.  I do wish they got a second female voice actor, though – apparently only one guy could do a decent french accent, so he was used for female french voices as well.  Distracting to say the least.

Vowell fans will feel right at home and gobble Lafayette up.  You can start here if you’re unfamiliar with her work but I still think Assassination Vacation is the best entry point.