Review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell


Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates takes on the subject of early New England history with an insightful and sometimes amusing bent that makes it an easygoing and fun read. It’s an accessible and cool book, a Gen Xer’s take on how the puritan culture of seventeenth century Massachusetts and its neighbors still continues to inform our American mindset.


Shipmates takes us through the story of John Winthrop, a puritan minister who traveled to New England in 1630 aboard the ship Arbella with a group of true believers and a dream of creating a “city upon a hill” in the New World, a vision of America that we as a nation still espouse to this day. Along with Winthrop, Vowell includes several other prominent figures from the time: Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his outspoken arguments for the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, Anne Hutchinson, a puritan woman gifted with a sharp legal mind and an even sharper tongue, as well as the Pequot and Narragansett Indians, natives who were forced to make room for the expanding European settlements.


With wit and an armchair style that makes the subject matter engaging and interesting, Vowell draws relevant parallels between the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s seal with its picture of a Native American holding a banner that reads “Come Over and Help Us” and our current national policy of “helping” foreign, sovereign nations with military intervention. The writing is smart, its thesis timely without being preachy. Both entertaining and informative, The Wordy Shipmates is an interesting little primer on the origins of American political philosophy.

27 October 2008

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