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Sarah Vowell’s style is to examine American history with an ironic modern sensibility. The facts are there and she’s no slouch at the scholarship, but at the same time Vowell finds the humor and pettiness in history while avoiding the common pitfall of simplistically mocking and insulting the people of the past. She clearly adores her subjects even while poking fun at them. In this, her seventh book, the subject is the Revolutionary War, which she follows through the career of French volunteer Lafayette. As always, it’s a fast, fun read.
I needed to read a history book for my library’s book bingo, and I’m so glad I picked this one! Lafayette is fascinating, and Sarah Vowell paints the perfect picture of him. There’s so much information about his youthful idealism, contributions during the Revolutionary War, and lifelong friendships with the founding fathers. Vowell does a great job of showing how bad things were for the Americans at times, and how many disastrous things happened that could have swung the war the other way. Of course, what sets this book apart is the humor. I think my favorite description is when she says the French soldiers looked like they were from a “Tchaikovsky ballet directed by Wes Anderson,” while the Americans were dressed “like zombie Tom Joads.” I wish there had been more about Lafayette’s return trip to America in 1824, where he was greeted by adoring crowds everywhere he went. My only complaint is that there are no chapter breaks. I know Sarah Vowell writes about American History, but she made me so interested in Lafayette that I wish she would write another book about his role in the French Revolution.
Drawn to this book by my recent obsession with the musical Hamilton, I was pleasantly surprised to find not necessarily a biography but more of a light and enjoyably-written overview of the American Revolutionary War. I've never read Sarah Vowell before, and I found her style to be really interesting to read but also detailed about the matters at hand. Her thesis that America's history of infighting and disagreement being the main reason they were able to successfully transition (or at least, successfully compared to France) to a republican government after winning the war was very interesting as a way to frame the whole book. Highly recommended if you're a history buff, or if you've just become obsessed with Hamilton as many have...
Though this recounting of the American revolution can be a little too detailed and mocking, it makes clear that it was a much messier and less noble event than what I was taught in school. Some of it is great fun and some of it revealing and some, not boring as noted by others but perhaps a bit tedious. But it's history!
This is a very interesting book, a combination of biography about Lafayette, history of the American Revolution, comparison between a not united America then and now, and the author's research for this book. It's all of the above and none of the above as the author digresses in her narrative.
There is no question that the material has been meticulously researched and it's well written.
My issues with the book are first that it's style is too casual or breezy and my biggest problem is lack of an index and footnotes to document some of the facts.
I found it hard to take this book seriously.
I could not get into this one. Too much Lafayette, not enough about her exploring her subject.
Sarah Vowell did a good job at making history interesting again. I did not know much about Lafayette, an interesting man. I still enjoy her stuff and the narrative she creates on historical topics.
I respectfully disagree with the other comment; I didn't find it boring, and I enjoyed her digressions. While I sometimes read more academic histories, I do like Vowell's witty, irreverent, and, above all, relevant take on American history. While some might find her a little glib, she always treats the historical figures seriously and finds a way to bring them to life in a way few others succeed at. The title is a little misleading, as Lafeyette (full name: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette) is more a supporting character, and the real story is the Revolution generation, including Washington, Franklin, Cornwalis, and Von Steuben. For a more thorough (but less entertaining) treatment of the subject, check out "Founding Brothers."
I asked myself many times while reading this often boring, but occasionally suddenly gripping book, why isn't this working for me? Slowly but surely, the answer came: the title is a bait and switch. It is not a book about Lafayette. Certainly he is there as a touchstone, a framing device, but she doesn't tell us much about him. It is instead about getting at the truth of what it took to win independence from England - the body count, the humiliating losses, the French navy, the shoes. When Vowell digs in to the real history and battle tactics, the book briefly shines. When she digresses, though, in her Vowellian way, it doesn't work as well, because she just plain doesn't seem very knowledgeable or forthcoming about her title character, and that gets in the way of appreciating her insights about what she does know well. So, Vowell fans, read it for the digestible history lessons on diplomacy and supply lines, but know that you will learn little more about Lafayette than you did when you started. Non-Vowell fans: skip this, read The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation if you want to try her stuff, and get your comical 21st-c Revolutionary War commentary from Hamilton and Drunk History.