I can’t think of anyone who’s better at making you think about American history – and sometimes laugh while you’re doing it – than Sarah Vowell.

Her books – especially “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” and “Assassination Vacation,” in which she visits landmarks of murdered presidents – explore underappreciated parts of our past to show that, in many ways, they’re still present.

Her latest, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” recounts one of the more improbable figures in American history: the Marquise de Lafayette, an idealistic, restless and reckless French teenager who helped the fledgling republic find its footing.

An added pleasure of Vowell’s books is hearing her distinctive voice – made familiar by her commentaries on “The Daily Show” and “This American Life,” and as the voice of Violet in “The Incredibles” – when you’re reading.

The Lafayette of “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” is equal parts cheerleader for the cause of liberty and a symbol of its possibilities – an odd mix for a man born into privilege who left his family behind to pursue adventure half a world away.

That status as a symbol, Vowell asserts, is crucial to understanding America, particularly since Lafayette was a rare bird: something we all could agree on. When Lafayette was invited back to the United States in 1824, two-thirds of the population of New York City turned out to see and cheer him.

“Other than a bipartisan consensus on barbecue and Meryl Streep,” she writes, “plus that time in 1942 when everyone from Bing Crosby to Oregonian schoolchildren heeded FDR’s call to scrounge up rubber for the war effort, disunity is the through-line in the national plot – not necessarily as a failing, but as a free people’s privilege. … Getting on each other’s nerves is our right.”

Vowell’s sort of the Quentin Tarantino of popular history: She weaves pop culture and real life into her narrative, breaking down the barriers that keep history buried in the past.

In a device she’s made her own, Vowell brackets his story with tales of her forays to sites connected to Lafayette’s role in the Revolutionary War.

A threatened government shutdown – which would shutter historic sites – reminds her that what seems like a new normal is really “the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart.”

Visiting the site of the Battle of Brandywine Creek – a defeat for the rebels, but a victory the British failed to exploit, while helping make the wounded Lafayette a heroic figure – Vowell talks with a group of Quakers, still angry their community was home to such a bloodbath. The conversation helps Vowell focus her perspective on Lafayette’s, and America’s, story:

“I don’t think I see American history as war. I see it as a history of argument, a daily docket of estrangement and tiffs – big and grand like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, big and stupid like the impeachment of President Clinton, or small and civil like what is happening at this moment with these strangers in these pews.”

Vowell notes that Lafayette’s embrace of liberty made him a symbol long after his role in the revolution was forgotten. Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, has become “the nation’s capital of protest, the place where we the people gather together to yell at our presidents.” She thinks the Frenchman would approve.