Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Back at the University of Texas in the 1970s, I took a survey of American history course with Professor Howard Miller. It was a revelation, for he contradicted much of what I had been taught in high school. Professor Miller had a habit of saying "I know what your high school football coach said, but ..." (Texas schools were known for giving history classes to coaches.) Miller's emphasis was the role of religion in American history, and he told us about many of the shenanigans of our forefathers. I am certain that he likes The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. She surpasses his cheekiness. Listening to her passionate, critical, irreverent, and wacky account of John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Puritans (as opposed to the Plymouth Puritans) reminds me what a great course that was with Professor Miller.

Of course, Vowell is from another generation than Miller. He would never bring episodes of The Brady Bunch and Happy Days into the discussion. I also am sure he would never compare Winthrop and the man he helped expel from the colony Roger Williams to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Vowell makes incredible connections between the past and present. She shows how the precedents set by these Cambridge theologians in the wilderness, such as the massacre of Pequot women and children, have been repeated frequently in our history. The words of John Cotton ring as justification for the extermination of native Americans and the invasion of Iraq.

I listened to The Wordy Shipmates on audiobook. Within Vowell's reading are many quotes from the diaries, letters, sermons, and court records of the very literate Puritans, each read by an actor. The book also has short musical interludes, allowing the listener to pause and think. I was highly entertained when I was not appalled by what the Puritans did.

The Wordy Shipmates would make an interesting group discussion book. It should be at all public libraries.

Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead Books, 2008. ISBN 9781594489990

6 compact discs. Recorded Books, 2008. ISBN 9781436150859

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