Are we making the same mistakes as our Puritan ancestors?


American history has never been so engaging as in Sarah Vowell’s whimsical account of the Puritans’ arrival to Massachusetts in her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates.

Having a partially Native American ancestry, Vowell has a unique perspective on history that is more well-rounded than the founding fathers’ and the other rich, white male historians that followed.

Vowell pays homage to the Native Americans who initially helped the agriculturally challenged European settlers.

Misunderstandings eventually sparked the bloodshed that followed between the Puritans and Native Americans. She gives grisly accounts of the Puritans burning whole villages of men, women and children. Any survivors were sold as slaves. Disease killed most of the Native Americans and King James thanked God for the “wonderful plague among the savages.”

The Wordy Shipmates is mainly based on John Winthrop’s journals and other Puritan documents, focusing mainly on these English settlers. There are many things they did that Vowell agrees with and many things with which she disagrees.

Vowell explains in her book that her inspiration was based around the reasoning that “namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into the two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded by Puritans from England. According to Vowell, Winthrop is responsible for “one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language.”

The sentence in question reads: “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as the same body,” and it is these words that inspired Vowell to action.

Since 9/11, hundreds of Americans have lost their lives. The economy has plummeted into recession. This book contains a certain powerful message. Just as the Puritans had to stick together in order to survive, Americans now have to do the same to set this country back on track.

Vowell recognizes that the majority of people who listen to stories about history think, “Wow, people used to be so stupid.”

We are horrified by the murder and torture that people used to inflict. We often neglect, however, to think about the murder and torture people still inflict. Guantanamo Bay is just one of the examples she mentions as a lack of human progress.

These parallels make this history relative for modern Americans that wouldn’t otherwise care about Gov. John Winthrop, religious fanatic Roger Williams or religious leader Anne Hutchinson.

After these insightful social comments about our current predicaments, she stops mentioning current politics but brings up instead President Ronald Reagan. The Wordy Shipmates would be a more invigorating read if Vowell focused on one history lesson at a time and drew more parallels to our current political scene. She gave enough to whet my appetite, but after finishing the book I was still famished for her specific ideas about social reform.

Vowell discusses the Puritans’ uncertainty in leaving England by using questions that haunt the mind of many Americans today. “What if my country is destroying itself? Could I leave? Should I? And if so, what time’s the next train to Montreal?”

These are thought-provoking questions that every American should consider, and Vowell does an excellent job of posing them to the reading public.

Sarah Vowell, reading a portion of The Wordy ShipmatesTuesday, Oct. 14, 7 p.m. Bagdad Theater$25 entry fee, includes a hardcover copy of The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates***1/2$25.95


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