I (Erin) am a fan of Sarah Vowell.
I like her look; she reminds me of MTV’s Daria way back when. I like the way she talks. You may remember the pin-thin, dark-haired daughter in The Incredibles, the one who sounded like you’d imagine a sad, bespectacled, awkward teenager to sound? Yup, that was 33-year-old Vowell’s vocal chords at work.
I also like her writing. In Assassination Vacation, she made a cross-country road trip during which she toted her nephew to locations where ill-fated Presidents lived and died seem like enormous amounts of fun. The Partly Cloudy Patriot was also funny, irreverent and informative, although the details of that book are a little hazier for me.
Her newest book, The Wordy Shipmates, chronicles the arrival of the Puritans aboard the good ship Arbella and the decades thereafter, long before America declared independence. Only ten years separated these Massachusetts-bound Puritans from their Plymouth Rock forebears, but the differences between the two groups were significant, and they all boiled down to faith. The Puritans of Vowell’s book were Nonseparatists, meaning they wanted to fix the Church of England from within. The earlier settlers wanted to part ways completely.
Vowell is obsessed with one Puritan in particular: John Winthrop, who delivered the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” echoes of which have been found in many a modern Presidential speech. I don’t recall learning about John Winthrop in grade school, much less his arch-rival Roger Williams or that mouthy she-devil Anne Hutchinson. I remember what most people (at least us non-history majors) remember: Squanto, the Mayflower, Thanksgiving, those construction paper tee-pees that my mom has in a box somewhere. As I got older, I remember learning about the utterly bum deal that Native Americans got, but still no John Winthrop. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. (And for the record, Vowell does an excellent job of bringing the tragic Pequot massacre [700 men, women, and children burned alive inside their fort] to life after a series of avoidable miscommunications transpired between several tribes, the British, and the Dutch.)
The common thread throughout Shipmates is Winthrop’s vision of a “city upon a hill.” Despite his hope for the new life this city symbolized, he endured endless frustration trying to achieve it. Disease, war and religion kept getting in the way (not to mention a months-long case of laryngitis). In one sense, he counted himself lucky to have made the trek; others less fortunate literally had limbs of their bodies freeze to the ship.*
Winthrop comes off as a charitable man who wants to share in other’s joys and sorrows. (Martin Luther King Jr. hearkened back to Winthrop’s sermon in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.) At times, though, Winthrop was as cutthroat and merciless as Christian Bale in Equilibrium.** He banishes people from the colony. In the middle of the winter. Without a La Quinta to shelter their frozen heads.
The most interesting thing to read about was Winthrop’s rivalry with Roger Williams (also eventually banished). Both men had opposing views about the direction of the church: Winthrop thrived in community and was more worried about his reputation, while Williams wanted to serve God at any price, even if it meant a lonely, isolated existence. Despite their differences, it was Winthrop who warned Williams about his impending banishment, allowing Williams time to hightail it out of Boston. Ironically, Williams ended up living in close proximity to Native Americans, learning to communicate with several different tribes and coming to a belief that few British held at the time: that this land was not ours to take (a belief which made his participation in the Pequot massacre all the more sad).
I’m still no Puritan expert, but I feel confident enough to casually toss Winthrop’s name into cocktail conversation if I feel the need to appear “smart” or not “stupid as an ox” as my dad used to say.*** That Vowell can capture my attention about a few people in the 1600s and actually make me chortle and snort is no small feat. If you’re in the mood for a little history (read: hot Protestants, crop rotation, and sassy broads) then this little gem is for you.
*= My feet get super cold in the winter. Like Russian tundra cold. At night, as soon as we get under the covers, I like to put my feet on Ben’s calves because his calves are warm. This irritates Ben, but it makes me feel less like my feet might freeze to a piece of our furniture.
** = Even as a Christian Bale fan, I advise you not to see this movie.
*** = My dad never said this. My mom did.