The Wordy Shipmates is pretty true to Sarah Vowell form: chatty historical memoir. Her style in this book reminds me of the particularly engaging 10th grade American history teacher I had in 1998: lots of enthusiasm, lots of primary texts, a few personal anecdotes and musings thrown in for good measure. She focuses on one historical point in this book, telling us all about the first American Puritans and how they got this great experiment started. Winthrop, Williams, and Cotton are well-developed characters and Vowell teases out how their ideas continue to influence us today really well redeeming the Puritans from our simplistic modern stereotypes while she does so. Overall, it was a good read. I love Vowell’s way of making historical events more human, like she’s telling a gossipy story about her co-workers over a cocktail.
A few things dropped this down a star or two, though. First, I wanted a little clearer structure throughout. The stories and her personal musings are indeed interesting, but she often meanders from the narrative and/or gets lost in historical facts rather than colorful details. I think she’s at her best when she is in storytelling mode, but there were sections of this book that were heavy on quoting primary sources, and it definitely slogged in those parts. There are a few times she introduces rather minor personages, wanders off, and then mentions these characters 50 pages later. Which is fine, but there wasn’t enough character development for these supporting actors to make this really work. Also, the chapters don’t have titles, and by halfway through, I wanted some structure…a glossary or a timeline or something. Illustrations, even.
However, toward the end, Vowell brings us back with a wonderful section on Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer. This section in particular was what Vowell does best: strong characters with fascinating stories that just need a little light shed on them, lots of gossipy drama, and right-now real-life connections to tie it all together.
I enjoyed it, and I appreciate Vowell’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter. If you want to read about Puritans, this is a great place to start.