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Book review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

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Puritan history - The Wordy ShipmatesAs soon as I start reading The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell’s 2009 book about the Puritans, I can hear her voice in my head.

Know before you read:

Vowell is an “armchair historian“. Don’t worry – she knows it. It’s on the dust jacket. In fact, at times this book feels more like a memoir. Vowell describes visiting a historical site with “reenacters” and her sister’s interaction with them, or her then-young nephew’s reaction to learning about a massacre carried out by the English settlers.

Her tone is very conversational – think of this as a very long This American Life transcript, almost. Asides, commentary and even jokes sprinkled everywhere.

The plus? This is not your standard dry history. The minus? This is not objective by any stretch of the imagination.

Puritans come to America:

Right at the beginning, Vowell ties the Puritans emigrating to North America to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Again, this is far more social commentary than strict history.

It’s interesting to read the admiration Vowell has for these very early settlers – even as she describes their ridiculously high standards and strict values. She very clearly admires aspects of Winthrop and the other Puritans trying to find their way on the new continent.

The through-thought of this book seems to be that Winthrop really tried to hold together his town and people – and had to deal with troublemakers and “heretics” like Henry Vane, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson along the way.

One of the best comments in the book refers to Anne Hutchinson as “the Puritan Oprah – a leader, a guru, astar” (208). So true.

All in all?

I really wanted to like this book. I have loved Vowell on This American Life and (for purely selfish reasons) I wanted to believe that a non-historian could write a good, entertaining history book.

But this book was just too hard to read to give it a raving review. I don’t mean that the language was difficult at all. But Vowell’s sarcasm and jokes and commentary kept kicking me out of the narrative. There were too many voices (between Vowell’s and all the extensive passages she quoted) to really stay focused on the book. It took be far longer to read than it should have.

I plan on trying another of Vowell’s books, just to be sure. But overall, I didn’t love this one.

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