Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Like a witty, smart-alecky history teacher (the kind I adored in school) trying to engage her classroom, Sarah Vowell takes her charges headlong into the confusing, yet in many ways entertaining, world of the founders of New England in The Wordy Shipmates. She appears to have done her research well and is quite good at telling her story; she boils down the religious story better than almost anyone I have read. Her primary focus is on John Winthrop, though many other interesting characters from this period get their time on the stage (Williams, Hutchinson, Vane). Less the travalogue-personal memoir-with-history-thrown-in type of excursion (such as in her excellent Assassination Vacation), this book offers a refreshing take on the Puritans and this squabbling, obsessed group of brethren and patriarchs. And as she explains their many foibles and viewpoints, as well as their horrifying brutality, she takes stabs at modern politicians (such as Bush) and America's insistence on trying to force the world to always see things our way, or else, dammit!

I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of her take on colonial history, but will record here some passages that I especially liked. I enjoyed the beginning and end of the book the most; it dragged a tad in the middle. I loved her take on the witchcraft trials and our modern legal system: "Check out those barbarian idiots with their cocamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all than nonsense long ago." She pokes wickedly at the Bush administation when she writes: "The Bible is a big long book and lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending 'enhanced investigation technique' is not a synonym for torture." She often wears her heart on her sleeve. When writing about U.S. world leadership (while explaining the vision Winthrop and his cohorts had for Boston), she writes" The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it's still shining---because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation." Abu Ghraib will haunt this nation for a long time. I loved when she called the New England version of a duel a "pamphlet fight."

I like her forays into personal history too. Her Cherokee and evangelical roots clearly tint her take on the founders. She is a person I would love to take a road trip with.

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