A new Sarah Vowell historical hardcover is always a welcome blast of nonfictional entertainment, whether she's discussing Hawaiian statehood (Unfamiliar Fishes), the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Wordy Shipmates) or the malcontents who shot American presidents (Assassination Vacation). Her latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, is the story of a 19-year-old French marquis who sailed to the colonies and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. He returned home to help Thomas Jefferson pen the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. In his mid-60s, Lafayette came back to the States - of which there were 24 at the time - as an American hero. Three out of every four New Yorkers stood at the pier to greet him, and the city broke out in a four-day party in his honor. The point is Lafayette was a popular guy in the fledgling United States, less so in his home country.
We spoke to Vowell just a week after our contentious election. She sees parallels between squabbling Americans in the 18th century and ours. "What was supposed to just be a book about Lafayette," she said, "ended up being about Americans bickering ... When old Lafayette comes back on his victory tour in the 1820s, it's during what's probably the most rancorous presidential election in our history. Whether any of us like the rancor in our country right now, it's always been who we are. We are a country founded by argumentative tax protestors from a bunch of different regions with a bunch of different religions. That's still what we are. Sometimes we beat ourselves up because of all these differences."
Vowell will be at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts this Friday. "Generally in such programs," she said, "I read for a while ... maybe something old, maybe something new. (It) depends. Sometimes I kind of tailor things to whatever's happening in the world that day or that week. Then a goodly chunk of it is talking to the audience and taking questions, so they sort of propel that conversation."
Of Lafayette, she said, "That book ends in my favorite place named after Lafayette, which is Lafayette Square. Whether one is excited about the new occupant of the White House or not - especially if you're not - you should know that he lives across the street from Lafayette Square, which is basically the capital of protest in this country ... Garden-variety protests in D.C. happen across the street from the White House; and our president, no matter who that person is, for the last hundred years has basically had to live across the street from an Internet comments section. It's just where the people go to yell at the president. And not just our people: People from other countries where they're not allowed to protest go there to protest their own leaders ... This has always been who we are. It's kind of our inheritance as Americans."
Sarah Vowell, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $16-$45, 360.753.8586, washingtoncenter.org