I often like to call Sarah Vowell the Gen X Doris Kearns Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose. She’s a historian for our time, and unlike the Goodwin and Ambrose books I had to study in college, Vowell generally writes really witty and engaging books about our country.
Vowell is insightful and skeptical and above all else, she loves our country. It’s kind of amazing, but when you read her words you start to love our country a little bit more. She often proves that it’s okay to be in love with such a fucked up place.
The Wordy Shipmates is Vowell’s take on the Puritans — those oft-forgotten forefathers (and mothers) of our country. They seem, as I have read elsewhere, to have gotten lost between the Pilgrims and the Witch Burners. The Puritans were an interesting bunch though and if you read the first 100 or so pages of this book and about the last fifty, you’ll get a great education on the what life was like in Boston in the early 1600s.
I feel so bad for not loving this book. It’s a little bit draggy in the middle and feels more like studying history than enjoying history. I’d often find myself reading paragraphs but having no recall whatsoever of what I just read. Which kind of sucks because there is a lot of good stuff in this book, and there are a lot of examples of what Vowell does best, providing a real, easy-to-understand context on why all this stuff is important. Like this, for example, Vowell is explaining why she’s writing a book about the Puritans:
I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop [founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony]. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.
What is she talking about? This sermon:
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.
Pretty stirring no? And then because she’s so amazing, Vowell goes on to give a real-world example of what in the hell she and Winthrop are both talking about. This is what makes her such a fabulous historian and makes me feel so guilty for being bored by a lot of this book.
Chapters would have helped. I’m not sure what happened to chapters, but The Wordy Shipmates is just one, really long essay that sometimes feels a bit like a term paper that’s trying really, really hard.
This is the kind of book I’d recommend for hardcore Vowell fans. If you’re already in love with her writing, you’ll be a little more forgiving. If this is your first experience I’d give Assassination Vacation and Partly Cloudy Patriot a try.