Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

I've read Vowell before -- I was very taken by her book-length meditation on Presidential death, Assassination Vacation, and also greatly enjoyed her essay collections The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli. And I think I'd still steer first-time readers of Vowell to one of those books -- Assassination, by preference.

The Wordy Shipmates is a personal reflection-cum-history of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, starting with its founding in 1630. Vowell does mention most of the major events of the first half-century or so of that colony (and its offshoot in Rhode Island, and the later other offshoot in Connecticut). but she's really interested in Puritan ideology and the schisms it created. Vowell almost turns Wordy Shipmates into the story of the battle between John Winthrop (founder of the Massachusetts colony) and Roger Williams (exiled to form the Rhode Island colony), but she gets sidetracked into other nooks and crannies of the story of Puritans in early America, and never develops a strong through-line.

There are no chapters in Wordy Shipmates; the entire book is structured as a single very long essay. That's unfortunate, since the story and the book could have stood for some more structure -- as it is, it encourages Vowell to wander around her topic instead of engaging with it. She says several times that she likes the Puritans, despite -- or perhaps because of -- their stubborn obsessiveness and religiousness -- but she never quite explains why and how. Vowell would have been deeply unhappy living in that period -- intellectually unhappy -- and she doesn't examine why she's so fascinated with people whom she would loathe in the present-day world.

So Wordy Shipmates is a pleasure to read, filled with the fruits of Vowell's research and with her own thoughts, but it comes off a bit thin in the end. Vowell's voice works best when she's directly engaging with something; she needs to keep the parallels with the modern day in her mind and in her work, and that fell away a bit in this book. It's still tremendously readable, but it's not what it could have been.

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