Christopher Carbone's Reviews > The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
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's review
Jul 29, 2009

really liked it

Wordy Shipmates combines two things I love: pointed American History and biting sarcasm. Sarah Vowell's look at the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its Puritan settlers is a deep look at the very birth of a people and how they got to be the very bedrock of a free people.

The book begins with the departure of the Arbella from England and John Cotton's speech about how these Puritans (and not the scum that left England ten years earlier for Plymouth - dreaded "separatists") were God's own chosen people, and how that attitude has gone through the ages to include the slaughter of Indians, Manifest Destiny, US involvement in wars and possibly the invasion of Iraq.

What's astounding is that this period of American history does not interest me, yet I found myself enamored with deeply confident John Winthrop; his cause; his desire to fight anyone who threatened his people (namely- the English); how he banished Roger Williams, then when Williams loiters about, send troops to arrest him. The only thing that saves Williams is an tip from a prominent Bostonian that gets him to leave one foot ahead of the law.

That Bostonian? John Winthrop.

Williams is part trouble-maker, part condemner of sins, and all judgmental. But while Winthrop banishes those he does not agree with, Williams keeps them around to argue with them. Winthrop wants to do away with you; Williams wants to keep you around to tell you how hot Hell will get for you.

Then there is Ann Hutchinson who gets into a major scuffle with Winthrop over what is and what is not a good mix of church and state. 200+ years later, their descendants would get involved in a similar debate, only Winthrop's descendant John Kerry will lose to Hutchinson's descendant, George Bush.

The book also grabs a hold of the famed "City on a Hill" speech and dissects how Ronald Regan used (and abused) the speech and how Mario Cuomo called him on it. It also described how Americans, we are apt to remember the good (we are the chosen people) and not the bad (we kill people who disagree).

The book has slow points (the Hutchinson parts drag as do the ones about the Indian Wars- Vowell spends an inordinate amount of time trying to detail every misunderstanding), and there is some short-cutting that somebody who pays attention can become impatient with.

However, the book ties it all together by describing the parallels between Winthrop and Williams to John F. Kennedy; how Williams Rhode Island is the cornerstone of our Establishment Clause. Overall, this book describes how we got our start, for better or worse, but with the hint that it was for the better.

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