My Favorite Reads – The Wordy Shipmates

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

From the inside cover: To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means — and what it should mean.  What was this great political enterprise all about?  Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation?  What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest.  The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty.  Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance.  Along the way she asks:

Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christ-like Christian, or conformity’s tyrannical enforcer?  Answer: Yes!

Was Rhode Island’s architect, Roger Williams, America’s founding freak or the father of the First Amendment?  Same difference.

What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.

What was the Puritan’s pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

Sarah Vowell’s special brand of armchair history makes the bazaar and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun.  She takes us from the modern-day reenactments of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from the old-timey Puritan poetry, where “righteousness” is rhymed with “wildness,” to a Mayflower-themed waterslide.  Throughout, The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America’s most celebrated voices.  Thou shalt enjoy it.

My thoughts: One caution about the book — if you’re looking for a purely historical read, you won’t find it here. A short book, only 254 pages, it reads more like a dissertation rather than an in-depth historical look at the time period. Her topic is well focused and she doesn’t divert from what she has set out to research — the letters of the men inhabiting the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Don’t get me wrong, what she does fill the page with are wonderful and witty insights that will make you laugh about the sheer silliness of history.

She talks about the sometimes trifling events that made America what it is today and includes a few road trips to examine some things first hand.  While she doesn’t provide much in terms of the history of the very early Puritans, her work is focused on the words of the men (let’s be honest, it was all about the men at the time), one is left with an odd but very insightful interpretation of the types of people who were setting out to found a new land.

Vowell has a few other books out, one in particular called Assassination Vacation that I want to read.  She has a great sense of humor and can make a topic like the Puritans seems like a comedy.

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