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Sarah Vowell – The Wordy Shipmates

October 22, 2008

132. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

Length: 254 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; History

Started: 18 October 2008
Finished: 21 October 2008

Puritans! Um… woo?
This is not the history
that you learned in school.

Summary: Even for American students, the only two important dates in American history that stick with us from our history lessons are 1620 (the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock) and 1776 (The Declaration of Independence), as if nothing interesting was happening in the intervening century and a half. Similarly, when the word “Puritan” gets used nowadays, it typically means “fun-hating hyper-religious buzzkill.” In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell sets out to dispell both of these myths by providing a portrait of the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Colony during the mid-seventeenth century – well-read and well-spoken men with deep religious and ethical principles and a fierce passion supporting those principles, men who desired to found the original “shining city on a hill” that so many politicians have referenced afterwards. John Winthrop, Roger Williams, John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, and others come to life as Vowell explores some of the principles upon which early American settlement was based, the ideals these people were willing to gamble life and limb to obtain, and how these things resonate with the state of politics today.

Review: Vowell’s a self-professed history nut, but her books are anything but dry. She manages to take Puritan history – which, let’s be honest, shouldn’t really be particularly interesting – and inject it with enough dry wit, interesting trivia, and modern resonance so that it’s not even bogged down by extensive quoting from letters and sermons arguing obscure (and to my eyes, extremely minute) differences of theology. Vowell became interested in the Puritans after September 11th, when the long lines of people waiting to give blood reminded her of Winthrop’s sermon on Christian Charity:

We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

In the Puritans we also find the root of our sense of “American exceptionalism”, the sense that America can – and should – (and will) – step in to “help” in global affairs, our distaste for authority that leads to a pervasive anti-intellectualism, and, somewhat ironically, the seeds of the first amendment and the desire for the separation of church and state. Since these, particularly that last one, are issues that I think are of critical national importance, I was fascinated to learn more about where they came from, and how they played out, both for good and bad, in their early days.

While this book had a lot of really interesting history presented in an informal tone that made it much more palatable than it has any right to be, it did suffer from a lack of organization. Vowell’s writing is always somewhat discursive and scattered – she takes off on interesting tangents that may or may not tie back in to the subject at hand. However, in the other books of hers I’ve read (Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot), the tangents are kept in check by the chapter breaks. In The Wordy Shipmates, there are no chapters, and subjects that I thought had been covered and moved past would crop up again 20 or 30 pages later, making it really hard to keep track of exactly what her point was. Similarly, she moves backwards and forwards through time, talking about 1634 in one paragraph, 1687 in the next, and 1637 further down the page, making it very difficult to keep in mind which events were happening when, and in what order. I undertand the impulse to tell one piece of the story at a time through to its conclusion, but combined with the lack of internal organization to the book resulted in a book that lost some of its impact due to a lack of clarity. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of Sarah Vowell’s writing and sense of humor will find this book well in line with her previous works; newcomers will find this book a surprisingly interesting if somewhat scattered look at a lesser-known facet of early American history.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Medieval Bookworm, Reader for Life
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief.


  • p. 89: “Endecott would remain the mullah of Salem, which might have something to do with that town’s touchy religious climate throughout the seventeenth century” – a title of respect for a person who is learned in, teaches, or expounds the sacred law; a provincial judge.
11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2008 7:17 pm

    Nicki, fantastic review. I just love reading your thoughts on a book and wish I could be as articulate as you.

  2. October 22, 2008 7:17 pm

    Oh, I forgot to ask – was this a review copy or one you read just because?

  3. October 22, 2008 8:06 pm

    Shana – I actually won this from Amy during BBAW, and it’s just a regular copy. I picked it up during the read-a-thon because I wanted something that was a little more “grown-up” after reading a bunch of YA fantasy, chick lit, and romance, but still easy enough to read.

  4. October 22, 2008 9:15 pm

    I took a class on American religion last year, and I was really surprised about how much about America today comes from them — your point about exceptionalism is a great example. I think the Puritan’s are fascinating and somewhat hilarious, but I don’t think that’s a common view :)

  5. October 23, 2008 1:39 pm

    My husband started reading this during our vacation, and he’s been enjoying it (now that we’re back, less time for leisure reading :( )

    It sounds like a refreshing look at what could be a dry subject. Thanks for the insightful review.

  6. October 23, 2008 1:46 pm

    Kim – Now that I know a little bit more about them, I’d absolutely agree with your description of Puritans as “fascinating and somewhat hilarious.” Before, I was absolutely one who believed the “fun-hating buzzkills” definition.

    Dawn – Let me know what your husband thinks when he gets a chance to finish it! History was always one of my least favorite subjects in school, and Sarah Vowell’s the best author I’ve found to remedy that, particularly for American history.


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