The Wordy Shipmates
by Sarah Vowell
The Pilgrims are deeply entrenched into American culture, remembered every year on Thanksgiving and along with the Puritans frequently cited as a major influence in our government, education and daily life. They have a reputation for being witch-hunters, adulterous-branders, conservative, no-fun hypocrites. But as Sarah Vowell sets out to explore, we owe quite a bit to these religious radicals, and the problems we encounter today are the same ones they faced over three hundred years ago.
The Puritans were unusual in that most of them could read. (Their dedication to providing literacy to children helped lay the foundation for our public school system.) This extremely literate bunch left behind a sturdy written record in the form of sermons, diaries and letters – showing the views of men and women from multiple walks of life – and Vowell often uses their own words to reflect their opinions and justifications for their actions. Vowel herself has a very chatty style of writing – the book is filled with little asides and humorous comments that one often includes in conversation but would normally be left out of a history tome – which I think will make the reading much easier on the layman.
Vowell opted not to divide her book into chapters, and it drove me nuts. The failure to provide easy stopping points made the reading awkward; I developed a tendency to read more than I could process in a single sitting, and the next time I picked up The Wordy Shipmates I wound have to re-read the previous paragraph or two to pick up my train of thought once more. It seems such a silly thing to nitpick over, but the simple breaking up of Vowell’s essay into separate chapters would have made the book much more digestible.
This book is chockfull of information about many of New England’s earliest major players – John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson, to name a few – but presents the facts in a way that I think many people who normally find history texts impenetrable will enjoy. But I found some of the parallels she tried to draw to our modern culture a bit tenuous, and the overall tone of the book – quite sarcastic at times – not quite to my taste.