Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates

Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA), Incorporated
Date of Publication: October 7, 2008
Pages: 272 

     Sarah Vowell takes a very intriguing and often humorous look at the Puritans in The Wordy Shipmates.  She explores the social and political climate in England which prompted the Puritans to embark on a treacherous voyage aboard the Arbella to the New World to found a "city on the hill" in Massachusetts.  She does a very good job of relating this early colonial history to current events and politics.  The views espoused by John Winthrop, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson echo through the centuries and appear in modern speeches by Mario Cuomo, George W. Bush, John Kerry and others.  This is a fascinating look at colonial Massachusetts and sheds light on contemporary issues.

     The author illustrates her points with less well known historical vignettes.  For instance, the story of the mass murder of the Pequot Indians by colonists in a fit of self-righteous zealotry shows that using the banner of religion to further a cause and justify violence is nothing new and wasn't invented by radical Islam.  The story of Anne Hutchinson and the denial of her rights to use her God given abilities because of her gender is used as a  frustrating example of the Puritans narrow-mindedness.  

     The author ends the book by examining John Kennedy's Presidential campaign.  Kennedy's speeches liberally quote from John Winthrop's sermons, in particular his "city on the hill" metaphor and his notation that "the eyes of the world are upon us."  The vision of a 17th century Protestant colonist preacher inspiring and informing a 20th century Catholic politician campaigning for the highest elected office in the land is ironic at the least.  

     This is an excellent book, winding themes from the 1600s and showing how these same questions and thoughts prevail in today's world.  These stories are told with great doses of humor and the author has a tremendous eye for the sardonic and unexpected.  I recommend this book highly to anyone interested in religion, politics or early American history.


  1. I have heard really good things about this book, I think it's time to at the very least get it on my tbr list. Plus I am a huge enthusiast in all things JFK, so this is a good hook! I have been reading a great historical fiction book by Larry Kaplan called When The Past Came Calling. It's about the Kennedy assassination and the events and figures surrounding it. Great read, Kaplan is a great author of this genre. is his site. I can't wait to read Shipmates!

  2. Thank you for your comments and the recommendation - I will look up Mr. Kaplan - you may enjoy my blog post from last November with my recollections of the day JFK died: