Adopted Son, by David A. Clary (Hardcover, 2007)
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
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.