November 13, 2008

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

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After suffering through years of history lessons about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop’s role in shaping his “city upon a hill,” one would think that (yet another) novel on the subject would be a less exciting read than the New York City phone book.
Sarah Vowell’s newest novel about the Puritans’ stateside adventures, however, is a pleasant anomaly in the catalogue of history books about 17th century New Englanders. Witty and cheeky in the face of Puritan sobriety, Vowell interprets excerpts of our forefathers’ diaries and doctrines to reveal a society more complex than our history books have taught us.
Beginning with the departure of several hundred colonists from England, Vowell walks her reader through the colony’s difficult first months (not exactly a romp around the Arts Quad, what with all that death, snow and starvation), rounding out the centuries-old stories with personal anecdotes and plenty of commentary.
“Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death,” Vowell writes about our predecessors. “Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.”
Though the novel is principally about the Puritans’ first decades in Massachusetts, Vowell notes the similarities to modern controversies, and draws connections that make the history lessons more relatable. But even as she dishes out plenty of criticism to our past and present leaders, Vowell remains unwavering in her belief of “American exceptionalism.”
America is supposed to be better than its mistakes, better than its Watergates and Guantánamo Bays, its Indian relocations and religious persecutions, she writes. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” she notes, referencing Winthrop. “The United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it’s still shining — because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation.”
Giving credit and criticism to all sides — Puritans and Indians, Bushes and Clintons alike — Vowell provides an in-depth look at our country’s beginning that makes for an interesting historical read. Her novel, however, is more than a historical commentary and should be read more for the pleasure of listening to an entertaining wordsmith than for historical lessons.
Sure, you’ll walk away from The Wordy Shipmates with a newfound knowledge of the ins and outs of 1630s New Englanders that would impress even Alex Trebek. But you’ll also emerge with a balanced perspective on America’s early settlers and their neighbors.
And, I think, you’ll have a hell of a time reading about it.