three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
Sarah Vowell
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A-The Wordy ShipmatesSarah Vowell is the author of several books (Assassination Vacation, 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005), but she is perhaps best known for her contributions to the radio program This American Life.

The Topic: Judging from the irreverent tone of her books and radio productions, Sarah Vowell might not seem to be the type who would think of the Puritans in a time of crisis. Yet in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Vowell found herself thinking about John Winthrop’s "Model of Christian Charity," taking comfort from his injunction to build in America a "city on a hill." Such thoughts were not without precedent for Vowell, whose history-buff side showed itself in books such as The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation. In her latest book, she turns her attention to Winthrop and his contemporaries (some of the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), focusing less on their pharisaical foibles than their emphasis on education and attention to detail—virtues that Vowell feels today’s America lacks.
Riverhead. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594489998

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Question: What sounds more arcane and uninteresting than the court struggles of 17th-century England? Answer: Puritan theology. Yet Vowell invigorates both subjects by imaginatively feeling her way into the conflicts and concerns of the main players in these distant dramas." Thomas Zelman

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"If there is such a thing as an irreverently reverent book, this is it. Read it to be (re)introduced to some historical figures you thought you knew, and to find some links, both troubling and comforting, to our own time." Luther Spoehr

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fair warning: Lacking chapter divisions and filled with arcane, hairsplitting religious distinctions, The Wordy Shipmates is, despite Vowell’s lively, insightful prose, heavier navigating than her more personal essay collections. That said, it is also a painfully relevant book, a passionate secularist’s argument for why the fine print matters." Heller McAlpin

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Part scholar, part standup comic, Vowell had enlivened such dour subjects as presidential assassinations and the mistreatment of Native Americans with a mix of wisecracks, pop culture references, and self-deprecating anecdotes. But the formula falls short in this disappointingly unaffecting inquiry into the post-Mayflower Puritans." Ariel Gonzalez

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book’s central premise, that our Puritan fathers were a learned, literary bunch, forgets itself midway. … Too much of the remainder of Shipmates is did-you-knows and pleasant digressions, all terribly interesting and fun but in support of not much—lawn furniture instead of poured foundation." Kevin Smokler

Chicago Sun-Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The palsy-walsy writing style of The Wordy Shipmates … is frequently too off-putting to be born. … While apposite to point out the manifold hypocrisies of our founders, snottiness is snottiness, and it possesses this uneven text like a Salem witch." M. E. Collins

Critical Summary

Most reviewers found Vowell to be a lively guide through the frequently misunderstood Puritan period. Several wrote that she will draw in readers who might not otherwise pick up a book on the subject: what could be better than history with the voice of Violet from The Incredibles? But others found Vowell’s treatment to be less dexterous; she slips in jokes where they don’t make sense and too often explains the past through pop culture references despite her clear understanding of it through original texts. Those who enjoy traditional history books may be dissatisfied. Yet, as one reviewer noted, Vowell’s irreverence frees her to explore the lives of neglected figures such as Anne Hutchinson and to illuminate aspects of the Puritan era that more serious authors might have missed.