Saturday, October 15, 2011

Statue in Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette by Noel B. Gerson

Reviewed by Gena

I read a lot of strange things for escapism. Lately I can't get enough of the 18th century. There is just something endlessly fascinating to me about a century that began with an elderly Louis XIV in stockings and high-heeled boots and ended with George Washington on his deathbed.

One of the most interesting characters from the latter half of that century was the Marquis de Lafayette. At age 19 he was already a French military officer, married with children, and unfathomably wealthy. Then he risked it all when he defied direct orders from King Louis XVI and snuck out of the country to fight the British in the American colonies. By his death at age 76, he had taken part in one American and two French revolutions and supported many revolutionaries in other lands.

Noel B. Gerson nimbly follows Lafayette through seven decades of exploits in the out-of-print gem Statue in Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (Call Number 921 LAF). You need not be a historian to enjoy this book. It is a light read that presents Lafayette's story with just enough background detail to help along readers who haven't had a history class in years. The historical detail doesn't bog down the narrative, but it still does a comprehensive job of covering Lafayette's life as a teenaged major general under Washington, his complicated and controversial role in the French Revolution, his stormy relationship with Napoleon, and his part in the July Revolution that deposed Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France.

At this point, I’ve read a lot about Lafayette, and I know most of his story. Still, this book held some surprises even for me. A favorite unexpected anecdote involved the Huger family of South Carolina. Benjamin Huger was the first to greet Lafayette upon his arrival in America when his boat landed near Georgetown, SC (well shy of his intended destination of Philadelphia). Years later, when Austria imprisoned Lafayette while at war with the French revolutionary government, Benjamin's son Francis went all the way to Austria and attempted to break him out of jail. Talk about Franco-American relations!

The book may be too much for schoolchildren doing quick reports on the American Revolution, but for anyone wondering what actually happened in the French Revolution and why so many people lost their heads, Lafayette's story might be a good start.

Note:  Gena is a new librarian who is volunteering at Main.  She reads widely, and is going to share some of her book picks with us.  Thank you, Gena!

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