Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book review: The Wordy Shipmates

The book-readin' gang has just finished up with Sarah Vowell's essay, The Wordy Shipmates.  The book deals with the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the middle 1600s.  In addition to recounting the adventures and hardships these people endured, Ms. Vowell opines on their motivations, their beliefs, and their self-flagellating moral consciences.  And, in spite of the depicted history requiring a certain understanding of religious minutiae* and a recounting of depraved and cruel human behavior, the book is a light-hearted and easy read.

*Minutiae is probably the wrong word.  John Winthrop and the Puritans took all that stuff so very seriously.

It's a story of war and betrayal and religious schisms that seem microcosmic replicas of the bloody religious upheavals that were contemporaneously raging across Europe.  It's the story, more specifically, of John Winthrop and John Cotton and Roger Williams and other personalities who are credited today with having established the New England colonies that eventually became Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Ms. Vowell relays a lot of factual historical information and inserts her own humorous analogies and comparisons.  She relates (with varying degrees of success) how the deep religious convictions of these men and their people have shaped the United States of today.  (Ronald Reagan's "shining city on the hill" meme was a direct ripoff of John Winthrop himself!)

I had hitherto known Sarah Vowell only for her work on NPR's This American Life.  She has a clever sense of humor and a unique radio voice (childlike and deadpan, but also wise and funny).  Her timing and delivery are spot on.  All that is great for radio.

But the further I got into the book, the more I became irritated by her witty remarks and wisecracks.  Her diversions into modern day politics were old hat and unnecessary.   (Sarah, sister, you can't tell me anything about Reagan or Junior that I don't already know by heart.)  In short, what works so successfully on radio, doesn't transfer quite so well onto the printed page.

I'm a fan of This American Life, and even of Sarah Vowell.  And maybe, with that high standard in mind, it is no real surprise that I was disappointed by this book.

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