“The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell

NPR regular and essayist Sarah Vowell delves into Americana and American history with an empathy and sense of humor, then relates what she’s learned in her odd, compelling books. In The Wordy Shipmates, she makes Puritans and colonial life real, close and relate-able. The book and its subjects are funny, interesting, sad and historical, yet none of these things outweighs or imbalances another.

The Wordy Shipmates concerns the Puritan migration to America, and the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These are not the Pilgrims of 1620, Vowell is quick to remind the reader. They sailed to Plymouth in the Mayflower, and were Separatists–they wanted to leave England and its church behind. The Puritans of 1630 sailed to Massachusetts, and were not Separatists. They wanted, or at least wanted to appear, to remain citizens of England and members of its church. They just wanted to do so far away.

I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as a shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell. (22)

Vowell introduces us to the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, John Winthrop, a man who strove for unity, not just for its own sake, but because it let them live and worship as they chose without (much) English interference. There are a few flies in the ointment, though. Roger Williams, a man so devout that he won’t even worship with his wife and children, as they’re not part of the “Elect”. And Anne Hutchinson, a mother of fifteen, whose drawing room becomes as crowded as the local church when she begins to preach such audacious ideas as that the Holy Ghost dwells within people, not just near them.

Williams and Hutchinson are separately forced to depart the Bay Colony, then found Rhode Island, where people might have true freedom of worship, and not have to worry about a meddlesome state poking around in their spiritual affairs.

Along the way to the creation of Rhode Island, kings die, wars are fought, allegiances switch, and letters abound. Vowell dusts off the trappings of people’s conception of history, and breathes not only life into it, but infuses it with humor and pathos as well. Beware this book: not only might you learn something, you might also enjoy it while you do.

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