Book Review - Sarah Vowell demonstrates the Puritan work ethic in The Wordy Shipmates

Author and NPR commentator Sarah Vowell memorably lent her adolescent-sounding voice to Violet, the invisible teenager in the animated film The Incredibles. If Vowell had real-life superpowers, however, she’d be more like Elastigirl, only as a self-professed American history geek. Vowell’s malleable intellect can take John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” metaphor from his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon and stretch it to encompass not just Ronald Reagan’s trademark evocation of the quote, but also the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Cuomo, Sept. 11, and Bruce Springsteen. She can bind America’s present to its past like a rubber band that never goes slack.

Vowell’s books qualify more as extended, chatty essays than in-depth histories. Her previous volume, Assassination Vacation, was a kind of tour guide to three of America’s murdered presidents. Vowell’s latest exercise in accessible Americana, The Wordy Shipmates, revisits the country’s Puritan founders. The Wordy Shipmates provides context to the highs and lows of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first decades and profiles personalities such as the colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, free-thinking midwife Anne Hutchinson and their occasionally fanatical contemporaries.

After amusingly riffing about how the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock command our contemporary consciousness thanks to elementary school Thanksgiving pageants, Vowell asserts that the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans truly set the foundation of American thought and freedoms. She approaches her subjects less like a cobwebbed scholar and more like an excitable fan-girl gushing over Winthrop’s best writing and the colonists’ admirable endorsements of education and religious freedom. She’s no Puritan groupie, however, and deplores the intolerance and violence that intrude, particularly during her accounts of the grisly war with the native Pequot tribe.

At times, Vowell gets bogged down in recounting theological disputes that she admits come across as arcane and nitpicky to modern readers. She tends to rely heavily on Winthrop’s diary and correspondence, and for long stretches of the book, her play-by-play of religious feuds can read like an unusually engaging set of CliffsNotes.

Vowell nevertheless finds thought-provoking connections between the Puritans’ all-encompassing religiosity, their persecution in England and their differences with contemporary American evangelicals and Islamist fundamentalists. Despite her affection for the Massachusetts Puritans, however, their personalities never come across as vividly as Vowell’s own voice, which can be both a blessing and a curse if you’re hoping for history to come alive.