The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

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by Sarah Vowell

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In this New York Times bestseller, the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States "brings the [Puritan] era wickedly to life" (Washington Post).

To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Sarah Vowell investigates what that means-and what it should mean. What she discovers is something far different from

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In this New York Times bestseller, the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States "brings the [Puritan] era wickedly to life" (Washington Post).

To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Sarah Vowell investigates what that means-and what it should mean. What she discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoebuckles- and-corn reputation might suggest-a highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty people, whose story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance.

Vowell takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, where "righteousness" is rhymed with "wilderness," to a Mayflower-themed waterslide. Throughout, The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America's most celebrated voices.

Editorial Reviews

Stephen Prothero
On first blush Vowell seems like an angry atheist set down at the historian's table. But under this anger is a good measure of empathy. Hers is not the narrative of an angry adolescent who never wants to return to her Pentecostal parents' home. It is the narrative of an adult who wants to see her American home for what it is—and for what it has done to her, and to us…what makes The Wordy Shipmates float is not so much its arguments as its voice. Most writing on the Puritans is as dour as the Puritans themselves. Vowell has fun with them, and in the process, she helps us take seriously both their lives and their legacy.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Vowell’s account of the post-Mayflower Puritans of New England and their influence on contemporary American culture over the centuries is thoroughly enjoyable in print. But hearing her ironic but passionate little-girl voice making history accessible and providing humorous and often trenchant present-day asides, as she did on NPR’s This American Life, is even better. In addition to fleshing out history with extensive quotes from journals and other documents of the time, Vowell has assembled a sizable cast of co-readers, including Eric Bogosian, Peter Dinklage, Jill Clayburgh, Campbell Scott and Dermot Mulroney. Some narrators feel like stunt casting, although there’s a lovely cameo by Catherine Keener, whose calm, self-contained voice is perfect for Anne Hutchinson on trial. Vowell and company (aided by Michael Giacchino’s musical score) make for pleasurable listening. A Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Oct.)

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Kirkus Reviews
NPR contributor Vowell (Assassination Vacation, 2005, etc.) takes a hard but affectionate look at the legacy of those doughty, slightly deranged Puritans who landed in the New World in 1630. Fans will be pleased to see that Vowell's admittedly smart-alecky style is alive and well: It's not every historical monograph that tosses together Anne Hutchinson and Nancy Drew, Dolly Parton and John Endecott. The author's characteristic devotion to detail is also evident. Previously she was obsessed with America's political assassinations; here she pores over the texts-the many texts-of the principals who interest her: John Cotton, John Winthrop and Roger Williams, in addition to the aforementioned Hutchinson and Endecott. She likes to visit the places most relevant to her subjects too; we learn, for instance, that a Boston jewelry store now occupies the site where Mistress Anne's house once stood. Vowell examines what she sees as the cascading effects of the Puritans' arrival, drawing a straight line from Massachusetts Bay to Abu Ghraib. She continually bashes the current President Bush, points out the tarnish that others seem to ignore on the well-burnished image of President Reagan (who patently lied about Iran-Contra) and ends with a paean to JFK. This approach can be jarring, as the author yanks readers back and forth between recent and colonial history from Charlie's Angels to the Visible Saints. Still, she dives into dense Puritan sermons and self-flagellating journal entries to emerge, generally, with a bit of truth. She chides us for careless use of the word Puritan and disdain for public intellectuals. "The downside of democracy, she finds, is "a suspicion of people who know what they aretalking about." In the end, she admires Winthrop's surprising tenderness, Hutchinson's chatterbox courage. At times dense, at times silly, at times surpassingly wise. Agent: Jaime Wolf/Pelosi Wolf Effron & Spates

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.66(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"[Vowell's] a complex blend: part brilliant essayist, part pop-culture-loving comedian and a full-time unabashed history geek. The mixture makes her both proudly pointy-headed and forever entertaining."
-Seattle Times

"Sarah Vowell lends her engaging voice and keen powers of observation to a work of social history...Provid[ing] a glimpse of what life was really like for the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the founders of Plymouth."
-Los Angeles Times

"Vowell's words crackle on the printed, quirky and unabashedly incendiary...Vowell is very funny. She is generous as she wrestles with the moral intricacies of our nation's beginnings and how Puritan contradictions inform our sense of American exceptionalism today...The Wordy Shipmates is more than a punk-ish twist on our brave, verbose, tortured forebears, living in their new colony like 'an ashram in the woods.'"
-Cleveland Plain Dealer

"For those of us who'd rather harvest our history lessons from The Simpsons than the History Channel, Vowell is a latter-day hero...Fascinating."

"Vowell...reads history with attitude, humor and sensitivity."
-Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"[Vowell exercises] her trademark sweet, silly, arch sense of the incongruous ways we memorialize the American past."
-Chicago Tribune

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