Sarah Vowell has been to Ohio many times, perhaps most notably to visit the gravesites of James Garfield and William McKinley.
When Vowell found out she would be visiting Delaware, she decided to do some homework.
“I did some research and saw about the birthplace plaque and gas station of Rutherford Hayes,” Vowell said during a phone interview last week. “That’s so American. You Ohioans are just greedy with so many presidents (seven, exceeded only by Virginia’s eight), and not all of them peaches.”
Vowell will appear at 7 p.m. Friday in the Chappelear Drama Center of Ohio Wesleyan University, 45 Rowland Ave., Delaware. The ticketed event, presented by the Delaware County District Library, will feature a moderated conversation with audience questions and a book signing.
“You’ve heard of the Chitlin’ Circuit?” Vowell said, referring to American performance venues during the era of racial segregation. “Well, I’m always on the library circuit.”
Vowell is the author of seven nonfiction books that blend American history, road trip and humorous personal anecdotes for fun, yet profound reads.
A scholarly journalist and art critic, Vowell said her turning point as an author came when she and her twin sister drove the “Trail of Tears” — a route where five Native American nations, about 60,000 people, were forced to relocate from their ancestral lands by walking to reservations in Oklahoma over a period of 20 years.
Typical of her work is “Assassination Vacation,” a book where she visits places associated with three American presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) and their assassins. One of the things that intrigued Vowell in the process of writing was why some places are remembered forever or quickly forgotten.
“A lot of history is about grudges or pride,” she said. “The past exists in the present.”
An example of this was her most recent (2015) book, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.” It turns out the title did not foreshadow our present political divide, Vowell said.
“This country was bickering from the get-go,” Vowell said. “We almost didn’t have a Continental Congress due to religion.”
What was the Founding Fathers’ inaugural meeting in 1774 became stalled over should there be an official prayer. Samuel Adams ended the logjam when he famously said, “I am not a bigot. I can hear a prayer from any man of piety and virtue and at the same time a friend of his country.”
Vowell noted that 50 years later in 1824, when Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette of France returned to America “for a 13-month victory lap around the country,” it was in the midst of one of America’s most contentious elections. It resulted in John Quincy Adams being elected in a four-man race without winning either the electoral or popular vote, the first and only time this has happened.
She called Lafayette that rarest of breeds, someone universally loved by Americans. His influence on America can be found to this day in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, where people go to protest, even people from other countries where protest is illegal.
Despite our country’s conundrums and complications, “I still prefer that to a police state,” Vowell said.
Vowell is currently working on an oral history project regarding the 1972 Montana State Constitution, which she calls the best in the country.
“It’s a beautiful document and relevant to here, today. There’s a bunch of crumb-bums trying to repeal it now. It was a wonderful story to be part of: So many non-partisan people (from all walks of life) rolled up their sleeves and found their voice. Regular Montanans. (American historical filmmaker) Ken Burns has this saying, there are no ordinary people.”
Vowell said that historical events are often horrific, pointing to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. If there is one bright spot, though, it is that in these situations “people often rise to the occasion and become their best selves — brave, compassionate, and insightful,” referring to the response of comedian-turned-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
For more information about the Vowell event on May 20, visit delawarelibrary.libnet.info/events.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.