The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah VowellThe Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Published by Riverhead Books on October 7, 2008
Genres: History
Pages: 272
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
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The Wordy Shipmates is New York Times best-selling author Sarah Vowell's exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become the people of John Winthrop's "city upon a hill"—a shining example, a "city that cannot be hid."
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, Christlike Christian, or conformity's tyrannical enforcer? 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 Puritans' pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.
Sarah Vowell's special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, where "righteousness" is rhymed with "wilderness," 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.


Don’t pick up The Wordy Shipmates expecting a grown-up version of Thanksgiving-centered lesson plans from grade school. Sarah Vowell offers an accurate portrayal of the Puritans in this well-researched non-fiction title, which regularly quotes primary source material and is delivered in a fast-paced, humorous, narrative style.

Vowell introduces us to colorful characters who pop off the page, real people from our country’s past who demand attention and dare to be remembered. She brings history to life. I especially loved learning more about Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island. Here’s this crazy zealot who, despite his own fanatical beliefs, believes in and advocates for the separation of church and state so wholeheartedly that he is exiled. He’s a man well ahead of his time.

My only complaint: There are a few moments when the commentary veers far off topic with an unnecessarily venomous slant. It seemed as if she was actively looking for opportunities to insert a jab. Don’t misunderstand: I enjoy sarcastic, sardonic humor. I also think there’s no need to be cruel. (You’ll definitely find out how deeply she hates Ronald Reagan).

So yes, once in awhile Vowell gets soapboxy; but for the most part, it’s nice to walk through the connections she makes, how the past ties in with current events. Vowell is passionate about her topic, and that really shines through when reading The Wordy Shipmates. I couldn’t help but think how much more interested in history I would have been in school if our texts had expressed even half of Vowell’s enthusiasm. Sarah Vowell believes the Puritans are worth getting to know, and I think she succeeds in convincing her readers of the same.