There's no doubt who's picked up the phone when it's Sarah Vowell on the other end. The high, girly voice is as unique to the NPR essayist as a thumbprint is for the rest of us. Her voice is so distinctive that even reading a Vowell book can feel like sitting and listening to her give a lecture in her deliberate, wry style. She's well-known for her passion for American history, but even still, the subject of The Wordy Shipmates, her latest book, is unusual: Puritans.
They're not even the Pilgrims, the ones ostensibly responsible for us eating turkey and cranberry sauce on the fourth Thursday in November. These are the Massachusetts Bay-colony Puritans, the ones who were slightly—slightly—less hard-ass than their separatist cousins to the south.
Why a book on the Puritans?
The answer is 9/11. Vowell lives in New York City, and she was there when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. As she explained in an interview, she has a pantheon of works she turns to in times of need: Chuck Berry albums, Moby-Dick and, among others, John Winthrop's famous sermon to the Puritans before they embarked for the New World.
“It so beautifully addresses the ideal of community and brotherhood,” she said. “Of course, when the town that I live in, after having gone through the horrifying attack—the horrifying, breathing-air-containing-incinerated-people—of course I would go to Winthrop's sermon, especially that part, which was always my favorite part: ‘Rejoice and mourn and suffer together.'”
The sermon provides an impetus for the book, and she repeatedly comes back to it as she describes one of the earliest chapters of American history. But a Vowell book is never a straight-arrow flight through any narrative. There are turns, detours and thoughtful side trips, like her rumination on the phrase “We are as a city on a hill,” probably the most famous line in the text. John F. Kennedy incorporated it into some of his speeches, but no one made it more famous than Ronald Reagan, for whom the words were something of a motto. Vowell decided to get going on this book when she watched Reagan's 2004 funeral on TV.
“When Sandra Day O'Connor was reading Winthrop's sermon at Reagan's funeral—that funeral sickened me—St. Reagan's sainthood was complete,” she said. “It always bothered me as someone who loved Winthrop's sermon that the former president would adopt that catch phrase, of ‘a city on a hill'—all the while his administration was all about the uncharitable lack of generosity.”
The digressions make up the best parts of Shipmates. But unlike her earlier book, Assassination Vacation, about men who've killed presidents, Shipmates offers a lot less in the way of first-person narrative or visits to historical locations, and it suffers as a result. Though Vowell has an uncanny ability to link history to modern life, during some stretches she gets bogged down in the history, especially a long section on the Pequot Indian war. In the end, though, sitting with Vowell and her thoughts on the fundamentalists who built our country is well worth the time.
“The last book, I only noticed this as I was finishing it: I was so enraged at the president, I probably started writing a book about men who kill presidents as a way of working through my own contempt,” she said. “This one about ye olde religious fanatics is my working through living in a world that's held hostage by religious fanatics.”