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She grew up working class (her father is a gunsmith) in a tiny town near Muskogee, where she spent her early years as a devout Pentecostal Christian. By the time she got through ninth grade, the family had moved to Montana and she had lost her faith. "The thing that really did it was starting Greek mythology," she says. "The more I thought about it and all the creation myths and all that, it seemed like, you know, wait a minute."
Still, she remains haunted by the Sermon on the Mount and "the radical nature of true Christianity." One of the reasons she chose to write about a group of intense 17th-century believers, she thinks, is that "I feel like I'm a Christian the way my atheist Jewish friends are Jewish -- it's a cultural thing."
High school brought beat poetry and rock-and-roll. Vowell bonded with the art kids, the ones, as she has written, "who changed my life, who saved my soul." Then came college at Montana State, followed by Washington internships at the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. The city wasn't a fit.
"Everyone my age wanted to go to law school," she says. "I just wanted to go to PJ Harvey concerts."
She started writing about music and art, but the idea of writing as a career scared her. Art school was a hedging of bets. While there, she wrote "Radio On," an intensely personal diary of a year's worth of radio listening. With the book in galleys, she did an interview with Hornby and boldly gave him a copy.
Hornby recalls that he probably patronized Vowell at first ("I thought she was 16"). Then he started reading and thought: "Oh. Okay. Possible genius."
That first book was also Vowell's link to radio journalist Ira Glass, who was launching "This American Life" as she was reporting "Radio On." She sat in on the production of an early show and the two became friends. One day over dinner she told him a story about encountering a Fastbacks fan so obsessive that he made pie charts detailing the relative contributions of the group's many drummers.
"Ira was like, 'Oh, let's get you a tape recorder,' " Vowell says. Pretty soon she was on the air.
"She sounded unlike anyone else on the radio," Glass says, "which is what you want. The radio is filled with people who sound like each other." Asked to describe Vowell's voice, he calls it "high-pitched," adding that it's "something in between a really precocious seventh-grade girl and Sarah Palin."
Whatever. Let the record show that it was Vowell's radio chops that earned her a call from "Incredibles" director Brad Bird and led to undying fame as the voice of computer-animated teen superhero Violet Parr.
Vowell went from doing music pieces on "This American Life" to more personal stories, such as the one about her dad and the lovingly constructed homemade cannon from which he wants his ashes fired. Eventually, she proposed a piece that merged personal and national history: She and her twin sister, who are part Cherokee, would get in a car and trace the path their ancestors walked when forced west on the Trail of Tears.
The tale is both horrifying and complex -- a minority of Cherokees, for example, betrayed the majority by signing an illegal treaty authorizing Andrew Jackson's brutal removal -- and Vowell is proud that she was able to tell it clearly. What she really loved, however, was combining scholarly digging with an evocative road trip.
"That just changed my life," she says. "Ever since then, that's just what I've wanted to do."
And she has.
In Union Square, not far from Vowell's apartment, stands a statue of Lafayette. The aristocratic French teen who fell head over heels for revolutionary America is a personal Vowell favorite. Listen to her riff on him and you may begin to grasp the strange, insightful muddying of past and present that she has turned into her intellectual home turf.
"You know that Allen Ginsberg poem 'A Supermarket in California'?" she begins. "There's a throwaway kind of line about 'the lost America of love,' and to me, the Marquis de Lafayette is just all about love." She elaborates, telling his story in some detail, mentioning his idealism, his being "such a continual friend to this nation when we really didn't have any," his desire to be buried under dirt from Bunker Hill.
And what, exactly, does this have to do with a life in the 21st century?
"I just find it makes me happier," Sarah Vowell says, "that when I go to the grocery store, I can think about the Marquis de Lafayette."