Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette In The Somewhat United States”

WashingtonLafayetteIn today’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle of domestic political squabbling, international insurgencies and terrorism, and crushing economic conditions, it’s easy for most Americans to lament the early 21st-century as a period where the world has simply lost its collective mind. Taking a step back a couple hundred years to the late 18th-century in Sarah Vowell’s wildly entertaining Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, readers are easily transported to a period where the citizens of Europe and the American Colonies could have easily drawn the same conclusion in an era where broadsheets stood in for the Drudge Report, Politico, CNN and Fox News.

SVBooksSarah Vowell’s previous books offer unique journeys through American history

NPR, Daily Show and history nerd darling Vowell has made a career mining US history for the formative stories and personalities which have shaped us into the frustrating and wonderful mess we Americans are today. In her previous works, Presidential assassinations, dogmatic religious zeal, patriotism, colonizing of native peoples and other complicated parts of our centuries of experience have all been covered through travelogues and overviews of writings which all contribute to our American experience through the modern day. It is only fitting then that Vowell has eventually arrived at the very origin story of the United States with the period of the American War of Independence. As always though, Vowell has chosen to come at this era through the not-so-likely lens of an enlightened and angry fatherless teenage French aristocratic immigrant who is often ignored in most of our modern memory: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette.


Vowell’s book provides an overview of the period with Lafayette as its star and a supporting cast of European and American aristocrats, playwrights, arms dealers, politicians, farmers, artisans, militarists, merchants, wives and strivers of the idealistic and violent era. Lafayette is portrayed as a young guy of the Enlightenment seeking personal glory, riches and yes, some political change on a worldwide stage. From the letters, diary entries and articles of the day quoted heavily throughout the book, Lafayette and these other folks are largely represented from their educated, wealthy one-percenter status which allowed them to reshape history. Although gunpowder and battlefields loom large in the story, Vowell shows it was in lavish dinner party conversations, drunken alehouse arguments and heady congressional debates where the real work of Revolution got done.

12045330_10206929315365760_4299028010311909902_oSarah Vowell at her reading and book signing at Book Court in Brooklyn, NY on October 20, 2010

Vowell’s journey takes her to out-of-the-way field trips in Europe, oddball artifacts displayed under glass and Revolution-era National Park Service sites stateside. In this she also brings her book, as she does in all her work, into the present during the government shutdown of said National Park Service sites in our modern political era of dysfunction. Like all good history, Vowell’s connection between past and present paints the picture of how our hundreds of years of squabbling and infighting sits at the American core. This is ground Vowell has covered in all her books, showing what a mess we are, how we never really learn our lesson and that we always manage to survive and get things done. Depending on your leanings and perspective, this might be a comfort or a challenge to your own experience.

That a bunch of talc-wigged guys (and women) would grow a cohort of “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” warring against the British monarchy into “state sponsored terrorists” backed by the French monarchy is a truly weird American story. By the time we get to the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence is effectively won by Lafayette, Rochambeau and their French forces, cementing the remarkable patriotic American tale into world history largely with a French accent. Lafayette In The Somewhat United States is also a tale perfect for Sarah Vowell’s smart voice.

New Game Weekend: Guillotine


The French Revolution is a period where one can typically find little to laugh about, unless the mass slaughter of tens-of-thousands of people tickles your historical fancy or massages your deep-seeded hate for European aristocracy. The bloody period did much to shape modern world politics, abolished slavery in French-held territories and opened the door to the rise to Napoleon Bonaparte, but the popular symbol that lingers in most people’s minds is the guillotine.

Developed as an efficient and humane manner of execution, the guillotine was a perfect symbol for the Age of Enlightenment-fuelled violence of the French Revolution — a combination of vicious violence and modern invention. Executions of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and countless other nobles and members of the ruling class were public events during the Reign of Terror of the Revolutionary period. Ironically, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror would also meet his death at the guillotine when public sentiment turned against the violence of the era. Beyond the French Revolution, the guillotine would remain a prominent mode of execution for prisoners worldwide and a mode of terror for governments such as the German Third Reich well into the late 20th-century.


Guillotine, the 1998 card game from Wizards of the Coast, uses the Reign of Terror as a jumping-off point for an unlikely comical, fast-paced and enjoyable game. Playing in about a half-hour, the game is framed over three days (or rounds) of executions with a steady flow of nobles lined up ready to be rid of their heads. Players score points through the value of nobles executed, playing cards to garner extra points, bump valuable nobles to the head of the line and steal from other players along the way.

The game is set up with an initial queue of 12 nobles lined up before a cardboard standing guillotine. Players are then dealt five Action cards to begin. Each player’s turn involves three steps. First, a player may use an Action card as an option. Next, the player collects the Noble at the front of the line, adding the card to their pool of victims points in front of them. Finally, the player draws back an Action card from the pile.

Once a line of nobles is eliminated at the guillotine, the day ends and the next row of 12 nobles is dealt out with play continuing in turn. After the second day and a third day of executions is complete, players score points from their collected noble victims and the highest score wins.

guillotine game

Within the game there’s a surprising amount of strategy as players not only collect their own most valuable victims, but also do what they can to prevent their opponents from doing the same through play of Action cards.

Action cards bump nobles up and down the line, reshuffle the line, cause other players to lose nobles they’ve collected and rescue potentially-high-scoring nobles from a certain death.

Potential Noble victims come in color-coded cards: Civic (green), Royalty (purple),  Church (blue), Military (red) and Negative (grey). The grey-colored cards have negative point values, killing innocents or other crowd favorites. Collecting cards in certain color may result in additional bonus points made active by playing specific Action cards. Collecting combinations of nobles like the Count and Countess together or multiple Palace Guards can also reap bonus points.

Managing your own Action cards, your pool of scored nobles and the line of upcoming noble victims creates a great deal of dynamic play within the simple card-based mechanic. The card illustrations are comical and include a number of historical personalities such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre himself, offering a mildly-educational element to the broadly-historical game.

While execution is a grisly theme, older kids will find the game to be entertaining when played along with a group of adults. Like a lot of historically-themed gaming, the nastier bits are pretty well glossed-over in Guillotine. The game does provide some great entertainment for a fast and fun Reign of Terror of your own as the dishes are cleared, the desserts are gobbled up and the last of the French noble class is once again marched to their doom.