inspired by the political repercussions (and widespread FRANCOPHOBIA) that followed FRANCE's refusal to participate in AMERICA's fraudulent military misadventures in IRAQ in the wake of 9/11 (and the all-too predictable moronic backlash by AMURRICANS thereafter), LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES (RIVERHEAD, 2015) by SARAH VOWELL is a compelling examination of the FRANCO-AMERICAN relationship during the REVOLUTIONARY WAR through the journey of noted patriot, GILBERT DU MOTIER, the MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE.
what i love about VOWELL's writing style is her way of balancing the charm of an attentive first-person TRAVELOGUE with the well-researched heft of an almost academic piece of NONFICTION and HISTORY writing. her narrative voice is nuanced, commanding and (quite often) sardonic which allows her to tackle something as seemingly dry and quotidian as the REVOLUTIONARY WAR period and make it intriguing.
as ive mentioned before, i took AP UNITED STATES HISTORY in high school and i was wholly unaware of how mistaken i was about the facts of that war. for instance, i never realized how malnourished, undertrained, unarmed and unsupported that CONTINENTAL ARMY actually was. essentially the individual colonies didnt see the need to adequately raise a decent military, which is maddening and counter to the narrative i was familiar with. case in point was the debacle of VALLEY FORGE which saw thousands of AMERICAN soldiers perish from exposure to the elements during a harsh PENNSYLVANIA winter.
another example was the lengths to which the FRENCH NAVY essentially secured our victory at YORKTOWN after an offshore entanglement with the BRITISH NAVY. yes, the most crucial battle of the AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR had, you guessed it, zero AMERICANS involved. just incredible. this providing of FRENCH capital in terms of its LABOR, ARMS, GOLD and BLOOD is best personified in that of LAFAYETTE, a FRENCH teenage aristocrat who volunteered by his own expense because of his love of freedom (and hatred of the BRITISH), who proved himself a capable leader and essential partner in the war effort that birth this new nation. he risked life, limb and status in pursuit of the idea of this yet-to-be-realized nation. some (like me) would argue that the dude was an overzealous, bloodthirsty fanatic, but hey, he's arguably one of the greatest AMERICANS ever, and he's not even AMERICAN!
so in essence i am thankful to VOWELL for writing this book so that i can sigh and cringe in an ever-more-annoyed state the next time i hear mention FREEDOM FRIES or the questioning of foreign allies. its so laughable it is quite depressing.
and that is where im at. thats where ive been since the BUSH JR era.
LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES is a great book on an oddly important subject that every AMERICAN should be better versed in (but wont, you know, because we dont read - or think critically).
generally whenever the topic of MANIFEST DESTINY is broached in history classes or public discourse, there always seems to be this subtext that everything worked out for the better. that the AMERICAN way of life is good and therefore the relocated native inhabitants benefited in the long run. for a country that broadly boasts and self-identifies with ideals such as LIBERTY and FREEDOM, the question always comes back to exactly whose LIBERTY and whose FREEDOM is being forwarded. definitely not members of the CHEROKEE, WEST AFRICAN or PUERTO RICAN nations among many many others.
UNFAMILIAR FISHES (RIVERHEAD, 2012) by SARAH VOWELL focuses its attention on the annexation of HAWAI'I and the gradual integration of outside RELIGIOUS, COMMERCIAL and MILITARY interests over generations that ultimately supplanted economic and power structures and effectively desecrated their culture and eviscerated their way of life. this is a case study in AMERICAN EXPANSIONISM and how our unchecked IMPERIALIST IMPULSE to satiate our domestic economy is paid in the loss of LIBERTY and FREEDOM of nameless, forgotten others from far reaches of the globe. a legacy that continues to this day in the exploitation of resources and labor by weak foreign governments, who effectively act as complicit lackeys in our global supply chain. the title comes from scholar DAVID MALO who warned that after a big wave, foreign unfamiliar fish come and effect the ecosystem by eating the domestic population. this being a metaphor for allowing foreign influence on the island. unfortunately that prophecy materialized.
before we sold unadulterated CAPITALISM to the natives of HAWAII, we sold them CHRISTIANITY. VOWELL goes to great lengths to showcase how NEW ENGLAND RELIGIOUS and COMMERCIAL (initially WHALING) interests first brought people from the UNITED STATES over to HAWAI'I. it is easy to knock these early PURITAN missionaries. i want to be upfront. i despise missionaries. i loathed them as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA, where they often deliberately conflated being CHRISTIAN with being AMERICAN to the locals. i found myself constantly confronting their ideas in my students at the university as well as locals i tutored. in my mind, all missionaries in general are the height of EGOTISM and XENOPHOBIA since their charter is to change foreign belief structures, not learn from them. i could go on but i wont. just suffice to say that despite all these qualities, the missionaries in HAWAI'I were successful in spreading literacy among all classes of native society and even codified their language with a modified latin alphabet. so i will give them that.
but with those early RELIGIOUS communities came close behind with commercial BUSINESS interests that over time saw the un-utilized land as perfect for the development and exploitation of sugar. with those interests came the imported notion of PROPERTY RIGHTS and a likewise transplanted JUDICIAL SYSTEM to oversee them with foreign lawyers and the like. basically a CIVIL SOCIETY sprung up and within a few generations ultimately outmaneuvered the existing monarchy. as is the case with AMERICAN history, issues regarding COMMERCE and PROPERTY RIGHTS supersede that of HUMAN RIGHTS, or at worse the latter is always contextualized by the former.
it is ever maddening and deeply troubling.
but that is the gift this book provides about a forgotten segment of our history. it seems even more tragic that the annexation was an afterthought during the manufactured SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR. it was a land grab that didnt even need a formal treaty of annexation. within the new context of the UNITED STATES as an imperial power that stretched as far as the PHILIPPINES, for the powers in WASHINGTON DC it was a forgone conclusion. at the expense of the natives, much like those that came before.
this book is thoroughly researched and well-written. it is worthy of investigation of anyone interested in the annexation of HAWAI'I and the distinctly AMERICAN theology of MANIFEST DESTINY that continues unabated to this day.
written in the intervening years after GEORGE W. BUSH's disastrously incompetent and misguided (to put it diplomatically) decision to lead AMERICA into war with IRAQ, ASSASSINATION VACATION (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2006) by SARAH VOWELL is a memoir about her pilgrimage to sites associated with the murders of past presidents ABRAHAM LINCOLN, JAMES A. GARFIELD, WILLIAM MCKINLEY and their assassins.
yes the premise of this book is all a bit morbid, but her humor and enthusiasm for the subject is what makes this book ironically so pleasant and enjoyable. learning about MARYLAND's racist state song or VIRGINIA's often quoted state motto (by JOHN WILKES BOOTH and TIMOTHY MCVEIGH alike) makes you question the sanity of our system of government all over again. or at least have some respect for how the rancid sausage is made. furthermore, learning about the entrenched corruption and incompetence between government and business during the GILDED AGE of the late 19th century, it is difficult if not impossible not to make the connection to the BUSH ERA. furthermore having read this in 2021, from my vantage point GEORGE W. BUSH comes off as child's play next to the malice and fear-mongering that defined the recent DONALD TRUMP era (and still does to present). the real star of the show seems to be how far the party of LINCOLN has fallen. getting acquainted with GARFIELD and MCKINLEY makes you appreciate the machinations and swell of corporate interests that swayed foreign and domestic policy back then. its beyond depressing.
this is also the type of book that i found myself constantly googling photographs, statues, tombs and historical markers related to obscure figures lost to history like EDWIN BOOTH (legendary SHAKESPEAREAN actor and older brother of JOHN WILKES), ROBERT TODD LINCOLN (eldest son of ABRAHAM), ROSCOE CONKLING (REPUBLICAN NEW YORK SENATOR) and MARCUS HANNA (REPUBLICAN campaign manager). what stood out to me was the section about GARFIELD's passing at the JERSEY SHORE. being a resident of the area, i knew about SEVEN PRESIDENTS BEACH but had no idea that presidents vacationed in LONG BRANCH multiple times. to me that fact was a bit of a shock. to learn that a church ive passed numerous times was where a president was aheld before transport back to WASHINGTON D.C. is pretty interesting and something i feel cheated in not knowing earlier. not since reading BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's BORN TO RUN (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2016) have i found myself getting out and finding local spots of historic significance. i was also relieved to learn that GARFIELD wasnt shot in NEW JERSEY, that happened in D.C. he just came north to convalesce and take in the warm climate. at least he passed in pretty area.
definitely an idiosyncratic, personal and thoroughly enjoyable book that makes investigating history both humorous and absolutely devastating. highly recommended.