Sarah Vowell talks about storytelling within nonfiction and history.
Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. By examining the connections between the American past and present, she offers personal, often humorous accounts of American history as well as current events and politics. Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, explores both the ideas and the battles of the American Revolution, especially the patriot founders’ alliance with France as personified by the teenage volunteer in George Washington’s army, the Marquis de Lafayette.
“I went to was at Monticello and there’s that, uh, entrance hall that he called the Indian hall, where he displayed all of the artifacts and specimens that Lewis and Clark sent back to him.
And most of them are replicants because, you know, he was a real spender and they had to sell all this stuff. So they have this replica and then the guide pointed at, you know, they’re the elk antlers and stuff like that. And the thing about Jefferson and the Indian hall is, and that you get at any of these sites at the Missouri river or anywhere along the Columbia or any of your sites, is the sense of wonder about this continent.
And that’s always important to keep in mind because you can understand why people fought over it. This place is miraculous when you go into the Indian hall and you can almost feel Thomas Jefferson’s excitement about this knowledge and these strange animals and these wondrous people. And there’s this on the, um, railing, um, above the hall, there was this.
The guide pointed and there’s a replica of a Buffalo hide map of the Missouri river. And when I saw that I teared up and I was with my twin sister and I looked over and she kind of teared up too, because to us that it’s home, do we have any ancestral claim on this valley? None whatsoever. But, um, they weren’t right.
They were right to want those place and to, you know, fall in love with it, for whatever the wrong reasons. But there’s something about that story. And then just as a storyteller, um, I mean, one of the things I love about nonfiction as opposed to fiction is I just love coincidence because it just feels, it just has this ring of meaning or magic or something.
And, you know, like in that story, An amazing story. “