My reading in the last week celebrated or at least observed the memory of, the American Revolution, though the books I picked this year proved to be a mildly disappointing lot.
First up was The Return of George Washington, an entry from my Mount Doom Pile, It promised to be a rare biography of the big G, one focusing on his years as an ordinary citizen — neither General Washington nor President Washington, Father of his Country. Four of those six year years, however, were consumed by the debate within the States over the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and the conventions that were called to remedy its faults — the chiefest of which Washington presided over. This is more a history of the Constitutional Convention as seen over the shoulder of ‘the indispensable man’ — a perfectly enjoyable history thereof, except that I read a few accounts of the same thing last year during my quarantine and found the revisit unexpected and repetitive. Those approaching the subject fresh would no doubt enjoy it far more than I did.
Following up was Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, a historically-inspired stream of consciousness narrative ostensibly grounded in the life of the Maquis de Lafayette, a young Frenchman who came to the States to defend the cause of Liberty against the king. It’s been nearly ten years since I read Vowell; her style mixes historical narrative, travel musings, snotty comments , and abundant political kvetching. Over the years my response to Vowell has range from amusement to annoyance, usually in the same volume; I found this one far more tedious than the rest, in part because I was genuinely interested in the Maquis and wanted to focus on him rather than say, Vowell’s opinions regarding the faux-government shutdowns that marked Obama’s last years in office. Her training in art rather than history is more on display than usual, with several breezy write-offs that had me cocking an eye and pondering if I shouldn’t just move on.
Lastly, and ending on a …well, I can’t say a high note because it’s a depressing-if-well-written novel. Ending on a strong note, let’s say, Stars on the Sea is a novella included in the Roads to Liberty anthology; originally written in the 1930s by a professor of history, it brings to the table superb detail and arresting exposition, as well as a tragic main character. Desire Harmony is a young Quaker woman who loses her family and home when the Brits burn her hometown, and in the process she’s revealed to have a British boyfriend, who knocked her up and then had the graceless luck to get shot. Disgraced, she drifts south to shift for herself, encountering disaster after disaster; meanwhile, her brother Tim joins the fledgling US Navy. The ending was unexpected and…not entirely chipper.
In the coming week, I may do a little more in this vein; The First Conspiracy, about an attempt to knock off Washington (!) , is in my TBR stack, and I’d like to read another of Mason’s books to see if it’s comparable. I’ve also finally found D-Day Girls, so perhaps I’ll finish it..