Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Wishing our U.S. readers a Very Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah Vowell is not your average historian, she’s quirky, funny and revels in irony. She hunts down the oddities in the past and presents them in glowing neon. Her previous bestseller, Assassination Vacation, was an irreverent account of trips made with her nephew to tombs and landmarks of slain presidents. Her latest is about the Puritans who emigrated to America and only she could make such stern folks amusing.
She tells us of the various sects and main personalities, such as John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts(whom she admires), Anne Hutchinson “the Puritan Oprah”, and Roger Williams, an upstart teacher who thought the original Plymouth Rock colony too lax, so went off and founded the state of Rhode Island with stricter rules. She mocks all of the infighting and power struggles saying participants would “..engage in the 17th century New England version of a duel: pamphlet fight!”
Vowell disputes the sexual repression of the Puritans with evidence of quotes and songs, many obviously influenced by Song of Solomon. Offering her own Biblical commentary, she calls the book of 2nd Samuel “…an otherwise R-rated chronicle of King David’s serial killer years.” She points out that “The United States is often called a Puritan nation. Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary.”
Anecdotes, popular culture references and puppet shows all play a part in Vowell’s writings, the reader laughs and learn. Her books are educational while being highly amusing and vastly entertaining. I can hardly wait for the next one.

Riverhead Books 2008, recently released in paperback    254 pp. ISBN 978-1-59448-000-0

5 comments on “The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

  1. Lisa
    November 26, 2009

    You make this sound irresistible, Jackie. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Gwilym
    November 26, 2009

    Following on from some comments I left on another review here, this is exactly what popular history can be trying to achieve. It reads as if Sarah Vowell has taken the preconceptions of Puritans and their lives and turned them upside down in an engaging and amusing ride through a historical period which otherwise has been part of the accepted discourse.

    I can’t help but be reminded of The Simpsons, where Jebediah Springfield and his partner Shelbyville part ways over the finer points of their settlement, specifically the legality of marrying cousins! A final thought – having looked at her other titles, I just love the cover art. It seems that unity of design is serving her well in carving out a niche market for popular and entertaining history.

    It might be a while before I look into reading this though – the “unread” pile grows steadily larger each month.

  3. RosyB
    November 26, 2009

    Happy Thanksgiving Jackie! What a fun-sounding book.

  4. Hilary
    November 26, 2009

    Happy Thanksgiving, Jackie! And thanks for reviewing such an intriguing book.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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