The Wordy Shipmates

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The cover photo of Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates depicts tiny plastic Puritan pilgrims, waiting to colonize your Thanksgiving centerpiece. Assuming that her readers know little beyond this tableau about the men and women who wrote the rules in the New World, Vowell leads us through Massachusetts’s first few turbulent decades, when preacher-leaders John Winthrop and Roger Williams and populist heretic Anne Hutchinson fought with each other and, eventually, tragically, with Indians. Vowell hopes that her history will help explain some of the United States’ seminal conflicts, “between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness.”

Vowell worries about her penchant for school-marmishness, and so she digresses into her trademark pop-culture minutiae—taking her nephew to a Mayflower-themed water park, recounting the Brady Bunch pilgrim episode. Suddenly, the author whips off her cartoon mask (Violet Incredible is Sarah Vowell!). She and her nephew are both part Cherokee, and the water slide is one stop on a vacation that proves to be as much about Native American destruction as clean family fun. Turning back to Plymouth Rock, Vowell explains that John Winthrop’s most famous sermon compared his settlement to the “city on the hill” in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Ronald Reagan used the image to illustrate the United States’ example of faith and hope to the world—especially the unsaved, godless bits. The Gipper got Winthrop wrong, a misinterpretation that Vowell sees as an example of Americans’ loving to “sing along with the chorus and ignore the verses” of our own history. What this book makes clear is that our current political and religious clashes are just additional chapters in America’s seemingly endless culture war.

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Vowell reads Wed 8.

By Sarah Vowell. Riverhead, $25.95.