Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates (2008)

I don't listen to NPR all that much (I like singing more than talking) and I'm not always the hugest McSweeney's fan (which I think I inherited from Dr. M), but I love love love love Sarah Vowell. I really enjoy everything she writes and her most recent book, The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is no exception.

Now, you'd think a book-long exploration of the Puritans who came to the colonies as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, created the town of Boston, and splintered off into the state of Rhode Island due to a series of hair-splitting theological beliefs might be a little dry. And it probably would be if Vowell wasn't writing it. Lucky for the readers of the book, Vowell possesses a light touch when it comes to the names and dates and theologies of history, a good eye for making connections to present-day politics and beliefs, and a contagious enthusiasm for early America. Seriously, there are so many ways this could go wrong -- too many personal anecdotes, too smug interpretations, too detailed historical analysis. And in every one of those ways, plus many more, Vowell goes right.

The book loosely follows the journey of John Winthrop, the appointed governor of the new colony, who gives his constituents the Reagan-friendly "city on a hill" sermon as they make their way across scary seas to start a new city, make peace and war with the Native Americans, and practice their version of Christianity away from the eyes of the Church of England. Vowell does a nice job of fleshing out the Puritans -- pointing out that many of them had some nice ideas about sharing with others, supporting one another, and even religious freedom (although that guy was kicked out and sent to live with the Indians in Rhode Island). And she doesn't hide the fact that these people were also strict, scared, unforgiving, and in a very tricky political position.

I have to admit that I had only a vague idea of all this history -- not being from the east coast and with a family who came to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and not the 1600s, I've always felt a little distanced from early colonial history. Vowell brings that history a little closer. I can't wait to see what she'll do next...

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