Though the books she writes are ostensibly about history, Sarah Vowell is at least as interested in present as past, as interested in ideas and the American character as in the facts of a particular period. The bestselling author and longtime contributor to public radio’s “This American Life” will speak Friday (Feb. 17) in Olympia.
Take her latest book, 2015’s “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” about the Marquis de Lafayette and his service in the Revolutionary War.
“During his time in America, both as a young soldier in the Continental Army and on his return trip in the 1820s, there was all this background noise of Americans bickering around him,” she said in a recent phone interview.
The early colonists were deeply divided in matters of culture and religion, and in 1824, the nation was in the midst of a “really rancorous presidential election,” Vowell said. (Sound familiar?) Andrew Jackson won the plurality of electoral votes, but neither candidate had a majority, and the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams.
“The country, even at its founding, was already too big and too divided,” she said. “Even those Protestant land-owning white guys couldn’t agree. It’s just such a miracle that this country was founded.
“This country is always about to disintegrate.”
Vowell of Bozeman, Montana, pooh-poohs the notion that she’s a historian.
“I think it’s fine to file my books in that section at the bookstore,” she said. “Where else would you put them? There’s one bookstore in Washington, D.C., that I think just has a section that’s my name, my books, and that sort of amuses me.”
“Olympia to me means riot grrrls. Those women were very inspirational to me. It was part of what I see now as a golden age of American feminism, in that sweet spot after Roe v. Wade but before the Internet. I have a soft spot for Olympia for that reason. Author Sarah Vowell
She describes herself as “a civics nerd,” but as much as her depth of knowledge has contributed to her career, she’s also known for her sense of humor and her attention-grabbing voice, showcased in the animated superhero flick “The Incredibles.”
Her last Olympia appearance, in 2001, was on a double bill with humorist David Sedaris at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
That show sold out, said Jill Barnes, the center’s executive director. “She’s the queen of the literary hipster nerds,” Barnes added.
There’s that word again.
Vowell is certainly not afraid to study. The opinions and insights she shares in her books, onstage and on late-night talk shows come from lots and lots of reporting and research.
Take a single interview with a Hawaiian elder for 2011’s “Unfamiliar Fishes,” about the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. “I asked him the first question about that,” she said, “and he answered telling me the story about the beginning of time, and seven hours later, he got to 1893.”
She is upfront about her mission to educate.
“I don’t know that American adults are entirely acquainted with their own history, especially when it gets down to specifics,” she said. “I always go back to the source. I always go back to the Declaration (of Independence), go back to the Constitution, go back to the Bill of Rights.”
So fundamental is the Constitution, she said, that one of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest speeches, the Lyceum Address, suggested it function as a sort of civil religion, with a central place in public and private life. “It’s the kind of thing that mothers should whisper into their babies’ ears,” she said.
One could say that’s how Vowell and twin sister Amy were raised, free to be “lefty kids,” though their parents were conservative.
In 1984, her parents’ Bozeman home had a Reagan campaign sign in a downstairs window and a Mondale one upstairs.
“My dad would drive my sister and me to our anti-nuclear group meetings in the family truck that was emblazoned with who knows how many NRA stickers,” she said. “That was our right to join this hippie group if we wanted. That’s something I feel like we’re losing in this climate.”
Just like her own family, Montana includes blue spots as well as red ones, she said. And she finds something to appreciate wherever she travels.
“I recently went to my 50th state, Alabama, and someone asked me, ‘Could you rank the states?’ and I was like, ‘Not really, because the ones I don’t feel that comfortable in have all the best fried foods.’ In places where I don’t feel like my kind of woman is appreciated, they have some of the best barbecue.”
A former rock critic, she connects to Olympia through its music.
“Olympia to me means riot grrrls,” she said. “Those women were very inspirational to me. It was part of what I see now as a golden age of American feminism, in that sweet spot after Roe v. Wade but before the Internet.
“I have a soft spot for Olympia for that reason.”
What: The bestselling author of books on history and culture and longtime “This American Life” contributor is known for her insightful and witty commentary on the United States past and present.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 17).
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.
Tickets: $25-$42 adults; $23-$38 for seniors, students and military; $13-$21 for youth.
Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org.