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Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

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Gen Xers probably don't need, let alone want, advice from me. But if I may make one small suggestion. If and when you want to name a historian laureate, give serious consideration to Sarah Vowell.

I know, Vowell says she is not a historian and she's not. But that elevates form over substance. History often played a part in Vowell's earlier books. Her last two, Assassination Vacation and this week's release, The Wordy Shipmates, are squarely in the American history category. With them, the 39-year-old commentator and humorist may well reach and educate more people about American history than historians of other generations currently writing.

Vowell once attributed her ability to make history interesting to a lack of pretense, allowing the reader to learn along with her and being "kind of irreverent." With the latter being perhaps a bit of an understatement, these elements were in full form in Assassination Vacation, where Vowell took readers on her pilgrimage to sites connected with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. With The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell applies the same talents as she moves from pilgrimage to Pilgrims.

Sure, Vowell now lives in New York City but you have to ask why a woman born in Oklahoma (and part Cherokee) and who was raised and attended college in Montana is fascinated by Pilgrims. And it's not the Pilgrims from the Mayflower. Instead, it's the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a group of Pilgrims headed by John Winthrop who arrived 10 years later and helped establish Boston. Her answer is that she believes the U.S. "is haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire."

For Vowell, this is exemplified in large part by Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," a sermon he wrote before or during the voyage. Although no one really took note of it at the time, a particular part of it has echoed in modern America: Winthrop's vision that the colony was specially ordained by God to "be as a city upon a hill," a model for others. That phrase, largely a "sound bite" today, was cited by President John F. Kennedy, repeatedly used by President Ronald Reagan and even employed by Sarah Palin in last week's vice-presidential debate.

Vowell notes, though, that other portions of the sermon were and are too frequently overlooked. "A Model of Christian Charity" also urged that the principles of "Justice and Mercy" governed human relations and that to love your neighbor as yourself was the foundation of all moral law. Modern Americans, though, aren't the only ones where there seems to have been a disconnect from those ideas. This language came from the leader of a colony whose official seal shows an Indian in a loincloth saying, "Come over and help us." "The worldview behind that motto — we're here to help whether you want our help or not," Vowell notes, is the colony's "most enduring bequest to the United States." Not only do the concepts of loving thy neighbor, justice and wisdom go out the window in dealing with — at times massacring — Indian tribes, Vowell contends this view served as a basis for U.S. gunboats and troops being sent to various places in the world, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq.

That is just part of the dichotomy explored in The Wordy Shipmates. Winthrop left England to find religious freedom. Yet in America, he insisted upon rigid adherence to proper doctrine, at least proper as he and most of his fellow white males saw it. Two disputes in particular draw Vowell's attention.

One is with Roger Williams, who would be exiled from the colony because of doctrinal differences, including his contention that civil officials had no right to dictate or enforce religious beliefs. Williams would found Rhode Island, which would shortly thereafter guarantee "liberty of conscience." Vowell notes it was Williams who first referred to a "wall of separation" between religion and government, a concept that would become a fundamental American principle.

The other is with Anne Hutchinson, strong, opinionated woman who had the audacity to open her home for women to engage in Bible study and discussion of religion. The meetings grew to attract others and Winthrop and other colony leaders contended her ideas were heretical. These include the concept salvation is not determined by the clergy judging a person's works but by personal inner sanctification. Hutchinson was banished from the colony following a trial over which Winthrop, as governor, presided.

Vowell organizes the book more by concept than chronology, which can leave the reader slightly muddled at times. In addition, The Wordy Shipmates can occasionally be a bit of a trudge. That is not necessarily Vowell's fault. Explaining the distinction between a "covenant of works" and a "covenant of grace" — a core issue in the colonies and the Hutchinson trial — is not easy, especially when most readers have little or no background in the concepts. Vowell manages to use modern comparisons to help the reader grasp some of the elements of Puritan theology, She also employs her usual eye for the offbeat and unique, whether it be a small replica of the Mayflower serving as a slide in a swimming pool, the fact it's an Indian casino where she sees dioramas and films about tribal life and the massacres, or that the rock in the park supposedly marking the site where Williams founded his settlement was "mistakenly blown up" by city workers in 1877.

While presidential assassinations may be comparable to the car wreck that draws attention, Puritans likely are not a big draw for modern readers. As such, The Wordy Shipmates may not be as well received or as big a success as Vowell's prior works. That does not change the fact that she may be unmatched in her ability to inject life into, create interest in and explore the modern ramifications of American history, especially a part that average readers may usually find dreary.

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About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.
  • Scott Butki

    Excellent review. just seeded it at newsvine. am finishing up an email interview with vowell

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Vowell was on Jon Stewart last night and was hilarious!

  • Jordan Richardson

    Vowell was on Jon Stewart last night and was hilarious!

    Indeed, it was a great interview! I’m gonna have to pick up this book.

  • Kyle Simonson

    I have been in love with Sarah Vowell since Assassination Vacation. She is so lovely, smart and funny. I want to have her children. Ok, wait…that just sounds wrong. And a little scary. At any rate, an afternoon sharing a bottle of wine and conversation with her, a nice dinner….and no assumptions as to what should happen next sounds like an ideal day. At least to me. Although I am kind of boring. In a good way.

  • Scott Butki

    Great review. I posted at BC about my crush on her. I finally got an interview with her which I just published


    With all due respect to Jon Stewart, this book was the most massive waste of time I’ve encountered since Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil.

    It’s all about Sarah Vowell. She has an apartment in New York. She hated Reagan. She liked Fonzie. Etc. etc. After a few pages I hated this woman. After about 50 I gave up on her ever talking about the puritans. Oh sure, she mentions them but then it’s all about her.

    If Generation X ever crowns a historian laureate it will not be a self-involved NPR navel gazer like Sarah Vowell. Let the Baby Boomers have her.

  • After a few pages I hated this woman

    we all note that you are much more efficient.

  • Jane Lancaster

    Do yourself a favor pay someone with a good voice to read your books on CD.

    Painful! I gave up trying to listen to your voice.

  • Donna Slocum

    The review was good. I liked the book on CD very much. I don’t mind if Sarah Vowell has a unique voice just like I don’t mind that she has a unique writing style. Hers allows a chuckle or a grimmace or even a shake of the head to make the whole encounter an experiance. I admit I am a fan but I would never post a critique without having at least read or listened to all the material.

  • Ben Ward

    This book was absolutely unbearable. One can see that there are obvious flaws in a book if a 15 year old can tell that this book is pathetic. I have to read this for an AP US History class and I would rather fail the entire class than read this piece of crap! I read 50 pages and it actually mentioned pilgrims twice, and only brief descriptions before resuming her long lecture of how the puritans related to her life. She’d sooner state what the brady bunch had in common with the pilgrims than actually write about what her title intended. Wordy shipmates? More like wordy, leftist, anti-American novelist! (I gave her too much credit calling her a “novelist”, this book is no more than an uneducated troll rant attacking religion and yelling at how the government needs to do everything for us)
    0/5 stars. I had to take regular vomit breaks every 5 or so pages.