Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Review : The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. Riverhead Books (2008).

Anyone who appreciates Sarah Vowell's writing is in for a real treat. The Wordy Shipmates is an uncomplicated presentation of history with a heavy dose of stream of consciousness commentary. Vowell grew up in the church, Pentecostal to be exact, and has an amazing grasp of 17th-century American theology for a layperson. Don't be scare though--her presentation is straightforward and easily understood. I feel like I know a great deal more about the Puritans after reading The Wordy Shipmates.

Vowell was inspired to write about the Puritans following September 11th. During those hardest of days, Vowell took comfort in Winthrop's words, "We must delight in each other...mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body."

Vowell's writing is witty and thoughtful. I found myself struck by an innovative thought either of Sarah's or inspired by her throughout my reading. I enjoyed her discussion of Reagan's usurpation of Winthrop's "city on a hill" phrase (from the same speech quoted above). I think the following quote highlights the intellectual curiosity, wit, and sarcasm Vowell pours into her work.

And speaking of marriage, in colonial New England weddings were "a civil thing," civil unions one might say, performed by magistrates, not clergy. Because a wedding wasn't trumped up as the object in life that saves one's soul--that would be God--but rather more like what it actually is, a change in legal status, an errand at the DMV, with cake.
[taken from ARC, may vary from final printing]

The Wordy Shipmates was just released today (October 7, 2008), and I recommend you go and get it without delay.


  1. I haven't been in the mood for non-fiction lately but this sounds fascinating.

  2. It really is. It took me a little while to get used to her style again, but she really is thought-provoking.

  3. This just showed up in my mail today; looks great! Thanks for the review!

  4. I started this last week and eventually put it down for another book. I'm about to give it another go though. i was really looking forward to reading some of her work, I'm wondering if i might enjoy Assassination Vacation more?

  5. alea - You might prefer another one of her books if it's the Puritan part you don't find interesting. Assassination Vacation takes on more recent American history, charting her trips to sites honoring Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, three assassinated presidents.