The presentation itself was free with $10 of every book that was sold there going toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. As expected, the turnout was near capacity for the building, which, though not huge, has a main floor and a double balcony on three sides. After a short introduction, Vowell took to the elevated podium and read a couple of short passages from the book and then opened the floor to questions. She confessed to some distraction as she took in the view from the pulpit. Along with being a history buff, she’s also a big fan of noted Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright. She says she’s considering writing a book, or better yet, a musical based on the lives of the builders.
Most audience questions dealt with the current work, which covers the early U.S. involvement in Hawaii and culminates in the year 1898, which Vowell argues may have been the most pivotal year for the nation, when the U.S. officially became a superpower. Under President McKinley and at the urging of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam and invaded Cuba and the Philippines in that year alone, which Vowell characterizes as an “orgy of imperialism”.
It’s her knack for finding the human interest and humor in what could be a pretty dry subject that gives her books their charm. In both her writing and speaking style, Vowell will at times go off on a tangent to make a story more relatable to modern readers.
Other audience questions involved her interest in history, which Vowell attributes in part to her 1/8 Cherokee ancestry, which was easy to research in her home state of Oklahoma. With her sister, she recently retraced the steps of the Native American “Trail of Tears” to get a better sense of their plight.
When asked what interested her as a child, she admitted that, being from somewhat “redneck” part of the country, the list included The Dallas Cowboys, Charlie’s Angels, country music, Elvis, and Jesus, and noted that she’s “still an Elvis fan.”
At the conclusion of the presentation, Vowell noted how lucky we are to have such architectural treasures in our midst and to appreciate them and contribute to their preservation.
Many thanks to Sarah Vowell and to the organizers of this event including The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation for a fun and informative evening.