The Wordy Shipmates

The public-radio regular’s brilliance lies in making history accessible to the general public through her considerable charm and humor.

Unabashed history nerds will no doubt hotly anticipate Sarah Vowell’s latest book, The Wordy Shipmates. But the public-radio regular’s brilliance lies in making history accessible to the general public through her considerable charm and humor. Vowell’s writing is as engaging as ever, though the topic of Puritans and their journey to America is less sexy than the cross-country exploration of presidential murder that was her 2005 offering, Assassination Vacation. Here she explores the characters and outcasts who populated the new world, such as Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams and the feisty religious maverick Anne Hutchinson. Vowell’s reverence for musty Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, and her textual analysis of his metaphor of the "city upon a hill," sits next to a visit to a Mayflower-themed waterslide—a marriage of earnestness and irony that she seems to have mastered, along with an eye for esoteric detail. Vowell’s beloved asides, anecdotes, and family legends are less present here than in her previous works, and while diehard fans will miss those more personal passages, as always it is Vowell’s hopeful patriotism that makes her topic shine. Whether she is exploring Reagan and John Kennedy’s re-appropriation of Winthrop’s words or simply finding comfort in them on 9/11, by exploring the birth of our nation, she makes modern parallels both scathing and poignant.

 
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