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September 2, 2014

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The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell. Riverhead, $25.95

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It turns out the founding of America wasn’t all turkey and acorn squash. It turns out our “Puritan” nation didn’t have such pure beginnings. It turns out “the Bible is full of anecdotes that prime the pump of treason.” And it turns out Native Americans were really into hacking off body parts. Sarah Vowell’s new book, The Wordy Shipmates, delves into the latent history of our nation’s founding (and by “latent” I really mean “not highlighted in boldface in high-school history texts.”) One would think it would be tough to make the topic of Pilgrims piss-pants hilarious, but the witty author-journalist nails it.

The Wordy Shipmates uses the same wickedly crafted narrative nonfiction Vowell employs in her popular This American Life radio compositions to tell the turbulent history of America’s formative years. The book is two parts extensive review of key Pilgrim documents—like the letters and journals of John Winthrop, Roger Williams and John Cotton—and one part humorous, anecdotal stories of Vowell’s experience researching the topic. Reflecting on her blue-collar, evangelical upbringing, Vowell clearly understands the world of deep religious conviction. And she’s able to use that background to pinpoint slight similarities between the Pilgrims’ plight and modern culture. Even if you don’t know squat about the Puritans, when Vowell writes that “the Old Testament Israelites are to the Puritans what the blues was to the Rolling Stones—a source of inspiration, a renewable resource of riffs,” it puts you in these men’s and women’s shoes (you know, those frumpy ones with the buckles).

Vowell’s honesty is charming. “Maybe it’s because I live in a world crawling with separatists that I find religious zealots with a tiny bit of wishy-washy, pussyfooting compromise in them deeply attractive,” she admits. You get the sense Vowell knows this shit is bananas but jumps into Puritan ideology with two feet anyway, just to try to understand how the founders rationalized their unwavering religious piety and violence against Native American tribes.

When Vowell’s Puritans and Indians aren’t raping, pillaging or lighting one another on fire, they can get a bit boring. There are long, dry, depressing stretches of straight research in The Wordy Shipmates. But when the author finally starts inserting her own insights into the text, it’s worth the wait.

Labeling Vowell’s work as satire would be a grave misrepresentation. Satire conjures an image of a peanut gallery of outsiders making quick jabs. Vowell is much more a comedic historian. Her topic is deeply researched, thoughtfully analyzed and, of course, diligently made fun of.

Whitney Hawke writes for Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, where this review first appeared.

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