The Wordy Shipmates

Just finished Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, an analysis of the founding and early years (1630 to 1660) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I was hoping this book would provide a fresh perspective on the history I had learned (and quickly forgotten) during my middle school years in New England, and I was not disappointed. Vowell is an entertaining writer who is able to balance a clear respect for her subjects with a snarky, postmodern voice that never comes across as too satisfied with itself; she writes that much of her childhood knowledge of American colonial history came from watching “The Brady Bunch” and other television situation comedies, without feeling the need to amplify the inherent humor of her tale by winking or groaning at her reader. Her book is certainly not a comprehensive history; only a few dozen of the thousands of colonists are mentioned, and of those only a handful are discussed in depth. But the people Vowell does focus her attention on – compassionate yet authoritarian John Winthrop, loyal outsider Roger Williams, devout and defiant Anne Hutchinson – become fascinating and relevant figures. I’m tempted to say that Vowell portrays the Puritans neither as pious heroes nor narrow-minded barbarians, but in fact she portrays them as equally both, praising their devotion to learning and ideas on community and damning their medieval treatment of contrarian thinkers and Native Americans. The Wordy Shipmates won’t replace middle school textbooks in New England (sorry kids), but it’s a must-read for anyone interested in becoming re-acquainted with what they’ve forgotten about this crucial period in American history.


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