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Book Review of Adopted Son
Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That
Saved the Revolution
Adopted Son, by David A. Clary (Hardcover, 2007)
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This beautifully written book vies with the best novels of our time for the ability to engross a reader. It's one of the best examples of writing I've ever seen. Most authors are either good with style or good with the mechanics, but Clary is clearly a master of both.
The unusually high quality of the writing led me to think perhaps he was weak on fact. That's not the case, though, as you can see after reading through the nearly 20 pages of biography and nearly 100 pages of backnotes. The detailed chronology also shows the writer's devotion to getting his facts right.
And the facts he dug up are amazing. Far from a dry recitation of events, Clary's narrative delves deeply inside the minds of Lafayette and Washington. We see not just what made them great historical figures, but what made them human. Gone are the stereotypes and cardboard characters often presented in historical accounts. This book doesn't follow the "good guys vs. bad guys" formula. It shows the complex interaction of these men with each other and with others. It also shows their failings, insecurities, and weaknesses.
In an age where authors typically have a personal agenda and cherry pick facts to fit it, Clary's work stands out. His only agenda is to help us understand two great historical figures through an undistorted lens.
Clary's nimble use of excerpts from personal letters gives the kind of insight that historical texts should provide, but seldom do. He also provides explanation where needed. For example, letters of that time used saccharin language that we don't use today. It would be easy to misconstrue what's actually being conveyed, but Clary provides enough background so the reader doesn't get confused.
The riveting account of Lafayette's wife Adrienne's efforts in France during and after the French Revolution was nail-biting material in itself, but Clary wove that into the larger narrative. She profoundly changed Lafayette, and we see this not through a disinterested historical narrator but through Lafayette's own eyes.
Personally, I've always enjoyed the subject of history. Consequently, I consider myself knowledgeable in the subject. When I saw the cover of this book, I thought, "Well, yeah, I've heard of Lafayette. There are many American cities named after him and he did something in the American Revolution. But he was a friend of Washington's? Nah, that must be hyperbole." The idea of reading this book intrigued me, because I thought the author must be making some obscure connection and I wanted to see what his leap of logic was. As it turns out, my historical education was lacking. Especially about Washington and Lafayette.
I'm going to offer the excuse that the available information sources tend to frustrate the casual student of history. Figuring out what went on in a given period or with a given historical figure has often been a choice between suffering through boring academic tomes (with their passive voice and other distractions) and a decently-written book with errors of fact. Occasionally, I've come across a book that's readable and accurate, making it a good historical book . But this book is way beyond merely "good."
If we start seeing Adopted Son in our public schools, kids will want to know more about history instead of considering study of the subject on par with getting teeth pulled. But instead of memorizing dates of battles and events in the American Revolution, they'll understand two key people behind those battles and events. And maybe they'll want to study other historical periods. If this way of studying history catches on, we may yet have hope that we will learn from history instead of being doomed to repeat it.
In the same way James Michener taught us about Hawaii and Texas with his page turners, so Clary has given us a "can't put it down" way to learn about Washington, Lafayette, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution.
Clary has just raised the bar for today's nonfiction authors. If authors of history books rise to the challenge, they will unleash a new genre that will capture popular attention for generations to come.
About these reviews
You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?
I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?
And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.
This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.
My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.
A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.
About your reviewer
About reading style
No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.
Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.