Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell

A more serious turn for the usually hilarious This American Life contributor, but apparently she's more than just a joker. In addition to hearing Vowell on the radio, I'd previously read her book Assassination Vacation, a Sedaris-like collection of humorous personal essays with a travelogue theme and a streak of seriousness. (Even after a hundred and seventy years, you can't really joke about the Trail of Tears.) Like that one, this book is shelved in the American history section, and it has a photo of a less-than-museum-quality Pilgrim diorama on the cover, so I figured it'd be about the same: funny stuff with a historical theme.

Although she hasn't completely muzzled her wit, this is a much more serious book dealing with primary sources (the written words of the titular wordy shipmates, early colonists in New England) and examining the disconnect between real, historically accurate Puritan ideals and current notions of the origins and meaning of American freedom and power, destiny and morality (including the post-9/11 beribboned-pickup-truck-and-lawn-sign creed of American exceptionalism that asserts our right and obligation to rule the world through economic and military warfare). Sounds like it could be pretty boring, right? But the author's obvious passion for and command of the material, as well as her engaging writing, make this a compelling and informative yet easy to read book.

This is the book I'd been expecting when, several years ago, I read The Puritan Ordeal.

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