It's almost a week since Thanksgiving, and the early Pilgrims are still on my mind. That's particularly amazing, given America's collective tendency to enjoy the one day off before rushing into the hellish pit of consumerism that is Black Friday. Who are we, awash in food and material goods, in relation to this ragged group of settlers? How can we understand the hardships they faced when we cannot even give thanks before rushing to pitch a tent in front of Best Buy?
Fortunately, authors such as Sarah Vowell are interested in pursuing these sorts of questions, and she does so with great aplomb in The Wordy Shipmates. Trying to describe the book is difficult, as it is an amalgam: part history, part biography, part commentary, part editorial, part rant...you get the idea. Vowell has opinions, and is certainly not hesitant about sharing them. You may not agree with her comparisons of the Massachusetts Bay Colony founders to modern political and religious movements, but you'll never be bored and you'll always be kept thinking.
Vowell takes as her main subject John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the creator of the famous "city on a hill" phrase. Winthrop is not an easy subject, and fortunately Vowell does not take the easy road of mythologizing him in her work. Instead, his faults and foibles are laid bare along with the rationale for his decisions which, by our modern estimation, might seem at the least harsh and at the worst tyrannical. In other words, she presents the complicated picture of a man who lived in even more complicated times.
If you're unfamiliar with Vowell's writing style, you're in for a treat. It's casual and never pedantic. This is not a lecture delivered by a stodgy history professor. She doesn't mind mingling the past with the present, so there are frequent allusions to events throughout pop culture, some more apt than others, but all work to make the book more engaging. This so-called "armchair history" is just the sort of narrative that can engage those who cannot identify with people who seem so distant, so far removed from themselves. It is a light form of history text, to be sure, but it's also the kind of work that can reconnect us to our country's origins without the "fair and balanced" spin of those wishing to co-opt the political history of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to finish off that last remaining turkey before it gives in to salmonella....