The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2008
Read by: Sarah Vowell
Source: Library

The Short Version:
Highly entertaining combination of historical facts, social commentary and humorous asides as Sarah Vowell explores the history of the Puritans who settled New England.

Why I Read It:
We enjoyed listening to Sara Vowell’s Assassination Vacation on our last road trip to Southern Oregon that we decided to get more of her books on audio. This was next up and we took another trip to Southern Oregon last weekend.

The Book:
This book is so hard for me to try to summarize that I’m going to use the publisher’s description.

Sarah Vowell explores the Puritans and their journey to America in The Wordy Shipmates. Even today, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means — and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:
•Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christ-like Christian, or conformity’s tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!
•Was Rhode Island’s architect, Roger Williams, America’s founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.
•What was the Puritans’ pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.
Sarah Vowell’s special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, to a Mayflower-themed waterslide. The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America’s most celebrated voices. Thou shalt enjoy it.

My Thoughts:
I’ll admit that although this was informative, entertaining and enjoyable and I liked it a lot, but not quite as much as Assassination Vacation. I would probably think differently if I had listened to this one before Assassination Vacation.

Sarah Vowell once again mixes history, social commentary, humor, sarcasm and just plain fun into a unique mix. This time around she takes a look at the Puritan settlement of New England. She notes early on that what she’s not talking about is Plymouth and the Mayflower and she’s also not talking about the Salem witch trials. As she points out these two places and small time periods are often the only part of the early New England that we study in school before jumping straight to the pre-revolutionary period. She’s right. Much of what she talks about in this book is information with which I was only marginally familiar.

She stars with the speech made by Joseph Cotton before the ship carrying the first group of settlers associated with the Massachusetts Bay company leaves England. She spends some time on John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity. It’s ‘City on a hill’ imagery is strong and until Vowell talks about how much modern politicians have used that image, I had not realized how much I’ve heard it.

I enjoyed her thoughts on Roger Williams who was basically banished from Massachusetts and went on to establish Rhode Island. He was definitely at odds with the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and had some trouble keeping his mouth shut. On the other hand his thoughts on religious tolerance are something we all need to be talking more about even today.

Vowell’s voice and delivery are most definitely unique and take some getting used to, but also are a large part of why her audio books are such fun.

I will admit I love every time she ventures off into a story about her nephew Owen. They’re always wonderful.

Rating 4/5