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.

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell

Riverhead Books

ISBN: 978-1-59448-999-0

4.5 stars

The Wordy Shipmates is an entertaining book that will have readers fascinated by the history of America’s founding and the sheer silliness of history sometimes.

Vowell begins with the sailing of the ship Arabella and a blessing by Reverend John Cotton, which being a rather long and dreary speech common for its time, leaves the reader and these particular sailors and passengers, with much to think about in terms of the task they are embarking upon. While she does not provide much in terms of the history of the very early Puritans, as her work focuses on the words of 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.

Her wit punctuates the story in all the right places reminding the reader of the silly and trifling events that have taken place which have made America what it is today. She takes readers on both a mental and physical journey as she road trips to places such as Boston and Connecticut to view for herself what has become of these locations she has only known from books and letters.

She talks about her fascination with these Puritans and their religion. Under her watchful and admiring eye, she once again brings these men to life, even if in some instances only to air their dirty laundry. While she does point out much of the inane arguments that took place at the time, you see the admiration that she holds for these individuals and what they are undertaking.

One caution about the book – if you are looking for a purely historical read, you will not 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 does not divert from what she has set out to research — the letters of the men inhabiting the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

She is insightful, witty, and very respectful toward her subjects. She leaves readers with much to think about and a laugh or two along the way.