The Wordy Shipmates

Quick show of hands: Who's all hot to read a new book about the Puritans?

Book Review

The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, 272 pp., $25.95

Quick show of hands: Who's all hot to read a new book about the Puritans?


I figured as much. We regard those faith-based early colonists as being so dour, so prudish, as such a kaffeeklatsch of killjoys, that who could possibly get pumped up over a tome about them except for, well, other Puritans?

That may change with Sarah Vowell handling their PR. Leave it to this self-proclaimed history nerd – she who turned the macabre topic of presidential murders into a comic travelog with a brainy kick – to redeem the Puritans from their stereotype of starchy piety and reveal them for the people they truly were: literary, thoughtful, courageous, and beset internally by an almost Shakespearean conflict between freedom and fidelity to spiritual doctrine.

In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell revisits the first decade of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where a crew of nonseparatist Puritans who have left Mother England (without letting go of her apron strings) are striving to build a commonwealth of Christian ideals. It's no picnic. Vowell delivers a vivid sense of the punishing ocean voyage and brutal conditions in the colony, as well as the way the Puritans are bedeviled by physical threats without (native tribes) and spiritual threats within (theological rebels Roger Williams, dubbed by Vowell "God's goalie," and Anne Hutchinson, "the Puritan Oprah – a leader, a guru, a star").

Vowell's leading man is the colony's first governor, John Winthrop, whose persona is as divided as Dr. Jekyll's. One minute, he's preaching community and charity in an oft-quoted sermon picturing Massachusetts as a "city on a hill." The next, he's dictatorially banishing anyone who doesn't hew to Puritan dogma – oh, and occasionally ordering their ears cut off before they go. Winthrop embodies America's best and worst impulses, and through the defining events of his colony's tumultuous launch – a massacre of American Indians, a law barring immigrants deemed "dangerous" to the colony, the trials of Williams and Hutchinson – we can see our national character being set.

This isn't as breezy a read as Assassination Vacation. At times, Vowell drops her trademark sardonic commentary to lay out the history in plain terms, as if the stakes are too high for her to make light with this story. And in a sense, they are, not only for the Puritans but for us. The wilderness we've found ourselves in after 9/11 is no less frightening than the one the Puritans faced in Massachusetts Bay, and we're no less likely to make tragic decisions if we're ruled by fear. As Winthrop said 378 years ago and John Kennedy reminded us before his inauguration, "The eyes of all people are upon us." The Puritans' story is ours, and if we're mindful of it, they won't be the only ones redeemed. Robert Faires

Sarah Vowell will be at BookPeople on Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 7pm promoting The Wordy Shipmates.

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The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

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