Monday, March 18, 2013

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy ShipmatesThe Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The unlikely account of a modern historian's love for the notoriously inflexible Puritans, highlighting the best and worst of America's New England forefathers.

Vowell has a great deal of sympathy and affection for the difficult-to-love Puritans, and she starts with the Arbella's sendoff across the Atlantic into the New World. She touches on the complex personalities of John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson: four passionate Puritans who sought to live by the essential principles of Christianity, as their consciences understood them.

Reading this made me want to veer into history books about the Boston Molasses Disaster, Dunkirk, the 30 Years' War, and the Pequot War, all of which are touched upon in the text. Vowell wrestles with the contradictory and all-to-human nature of this group of the Elect, who strove to be worthy of grace yet struggled to reconcile the sternness of their own natures with the virtues of Christian charity and mercy. At times these saints succeeded, at other times their lofty goals led to devastating failures that have repercussions to this day.

The sour note for me was an anti-Reagan screed - it felt out of place. Vowell resents Reagan's American exceptionalist use of John Winthrop's vision of "a city on  a hill" but recounts how she swells with pride when she hears Kennedy saying the same words, in virtually the same way. She's open-minded and forgiving when it comes to the quirks and shortcomings of the Puritans, but far less so for modern Republican presidents. If you are a Democrat or a liberal, you may not mind this (and may even agree with Vowell's assessment of the Reagan presidency), but for me it marred the book. (Personal preference: I avoid political books like the plague.)

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