Wordy Shipmates--Sarah Vowell


Let me start by unapologetically offering up what I hated about this book:

(1) The author couldn't seem to stay on task
(2) The author offered me opinions on everything from William McKinley and Andrew Jackson to George Bush, in no case making a substantive effort to document or supplement any of her at-odds opinions with substantiation.
(3) The author fails to distinguish between a still-born child and a "fetus." (Of course, we know the reason for that).
(4) And finally, the author is one of those feminists with a chip on her shoulder--shown in this case by the grievous hurt she suffers every time she looks at a magazine subscription card which has only one designation for a male, but three for a female--none of which can be viewed positively in her opinion. (So why not just refuse to designate a title? )

Okay, I've outlined the very worst features of this well-written, incisive, and often hysterically funny history of the early New England Colonies. Ms Vowell starts with the founding of Massachusetts Bay by non-separatists and takes us up through the banishing of Anne Hutchinson, with some asides that go a bit further into the 17th century.

What is charming about the book is the sincere respect and love Vowells has for her subject even as she deplores some of the horrors they were capable of committing. She is moved and comforted by the vision of John Winthrop in the wake of the fall of the towers.She is angered by the unjust treatment of Anne Hutchinson (although one could say that discretion is the better part of valor, and once her case was won before the court, a truly wise person would know enough to go back to midwifery and general discontent fomenting.)

Ms. Vowell takes us through the founding of Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island. She recounts the horrors of the Pequot war and King Phillip's War, and dissects some of the pressing theological issues of the day. I think she's a little off-track siting Ms. Hutchinson as spiritual founder of the new evangelical protestantism, as her antinomian stance is more akin to Quakerism, and actuality. (Ms. Hutchinson taught the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and apparently Calvinists of the time preferred the beside-dwelling of the Holy Ghost.)

Ms Vowell is a lively writer. I can't speak to her historical accuracy as I know relatively little about this time, so I defer to the scholars on the accuracy of her work. One point that is perhaps a little vexing is the annoying propensity to stray away from the subject. I suppose as a radio talk-show commentator, there is a bit of a tendency built in, but Ms. Vowell's subjects are so fascinating and what she is recounting so little known and understood, that it is more than a little annoying to see pages and paragraphs taken up in a diatribe about a "woman's healing garden" near a memorial to Anne Hutchinson. Such space were better devoted to Ms. Hutchinson herself.

So with the annoying little details noted above, this book still comes out very high on the must-read list for anyone interested in Early American History. I would have loved to have heard more about Anne Bradstreet and other Puritans of the time--but that too would have been beyond the scope of this little volume. A delightful work which one could peruse in an afternoon. Get it and enjoy it around the little annoyances.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 19, 2009 7:56 PM.

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