Great Nonfiction: The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy ShipmatesPuritans deconstructed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sarah Vowell is a popular commentator on PBS’s “This American Life”. A self-proclaimed history geek, she’s known for her essays, in which she examines and draws witty, often acerbic parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now. In The Wordy Shipmates, she takes on the first generation Puritans, lead by uber-Puritan John Winthrop in his quest to build a biblical “city upon a hill” in Boston. And she’s accomplished the impossible by making the words of such dour personages as Winthrop, Roger Williams, John Cotton, not only interesting but palatable. And, sometimes, quite funny.

The Wordy Shipmates would make a perfect gift for those who wonder why history matters. As an example, Ms. Vowell makes fun of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Great Seal upon which depicted a bow and arrow toting native in loincloth saying “Come over and help us.” She makes a convincing argument that this idea as much as any other has colored American foreign policy, as when the government sends troops, fleets, and weapons to the middle east, killing some of the natives in order to “help” them. Vowell lampoons the claim often made by our politicians that America is the last, great hope of the world, wondering what if they’re wrong, and the last, great hope is actually Lichtenstein, or Canada. She also brings out some of the human inconsistencies in their attempts to match words with actions: Winthrop is known for the harshness with which he treated dissenters, punishing them severely and then exiling them. But if the exile was imposed in winter, he’d often permit them to stay until the weather was warmer.

Perhaps the central truth running through this book is the fact that, four centuries later, America is still struggling to resolve tensions between hope and fear, idealism and reality, freedom and safety, the religious and the secular. In her own words, “My point being, the amateur historian’s next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid.”

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