Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Christmas 2008 my sister and brother-in-law gave me a for-me-totally-unheard-of book, The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. They had browsed the bookstore and noticed a display of this book on the Puritans in early America. (That’s “Puritans,” folks, not “the Pilgrims”) Knowing of my penchant for history, they bought it on a hunch. Boy, did they strike gold!! This is right up my alley.
For me, Vowell’s book is one of the most entertaining history books I have ever read. She has researched this subject, drawing heavily and quoting from the Puritans’ copious journals of their early-New-World life. Vowell makes the point that one thing the Puritans did to excess was write—hence her title reference to them being “Wordy.” It is to our great benefit that they did.
This author writes with such humor that I found myself smiling throughout the book at her clever turns of phrase and, on occasion, I chuckled out loud. This is an oddity for a history book—at least for me. But her humor does not impede her depth. I have read others’ reviews that her sarcasm was an annoyance; I did not find it so. But be warned: she’s a little edgy. Nevertheless, I think, she is effective as she teaches about:
Puritan theology and religious practice;
Puritan – Indian relations (tenuous at best!). The wars and treaties with the native peoples….amazing!!
Puritan – Mother-Country-England Relations (also tenuous at best). It was interesting to see the beginnings of the American revolution in the Puritan desire for self-government; at such an early stage!
Puritans fighting amongst themselves. Oh, yes, lots of petty fighting. Earliest Boston was not especially harmonious. Puritan punishment for sin included outright banishment from the settlement. This was not small thing. Think of being kicked out of known circles into wilderness where there were no other people except for those native Americans!
Banishment happened to Roger Williams, who was resourceful enough to turn lemons into lemonade and become (through his VERY close association with them because of his exile) the leading authority on native folk for his fellow countrymen. He even wrote a native American translation dictionary! So useful in the wilds of the New World!
Vowell is an unabashed atheist, so her assessment of the Puritans and their outlook is through that lens. She is careful to reveal her own stance, and I, for one, found her once-removed-from religion-assessment helpful.
Once I started it, I could not put this book down. And I’m a lot wiser about early America for it! C