Sarah Vowell

Books Reviews Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell

Did Pilgrims progress?

The time would seem right for a hipster micro-history of Puritan New England. After all, John Adams burned up the charts. And if anyone could take the squabbles over religion that turned us into the country we are today and make them amusing, one would think it would be Sarah Vowell, high priestess of historical essays for all us PBR-swilling public-radio listeners.

While The Wordy Shipmates contains scads of Vowell’s trademark acerbic asides, unlike her previous works, this book is (almost) a straight-up history. It is a dense—and I do mean dense—meditation on the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially John Winthrop, creator of the famous “City Upon a Hill” speech.

Vowell’s primary-source research and theological knowledge are impressive, and parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny. Yet the nonlinear narrative and stylistic flourishes ultimately prevent The Wordy Shipmates from becoming more than swell cocktail chatter for the holidays.

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