This year I let the Cannonball be my excuse to spend more time with Sarah Vowell. I have on my bookshelf several of her books (Radio On, Assassination Vacation) but there were several books I had yet to tackle. The Wordy Shipmates was one, and one that I continually confused with another Vowell book The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I re-read The Partly Cloudy Patriot for CBR4 because I forgot that I had already read it. In my defense it had been years. Now I’m happy to report that The Wordy Shipmates lives up to the other Vowell books I have had occasion to read.
In The Wordy Shipmates Vowell digs deep into th history of the Puritans who arrived in what would become Boston under the leadership of John Winthrop. This is a book following the exploits of a community and leader who would fight the Pequot War, banish Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, and get into a battle about where our fascination with ‘the city on the hill’ really comes from and just how Puritan much of popular American culture remains.
This is not as easy-reading as Sarah Vowell’s other books, but perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. I had the same experience reading about the Massachusetts Bay Puritans as I did about the Hawaiian monarchy and religious reformers in Unfamiliar Fishes. This is an interesting treatise on a single subject with is often overlooked in our education and pop culture, but it lacks the variety of topics which help keep other Vowell works such as Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot from having Sargasso Sea moments. It’s in these moments where there is movement, but it isn’t taking the reader anywhere that kept me from reading this work quickly or in fact reviewing it promptly.
I am left with the following observations- choose a Vowell book, any Vowell book, to be introduced more in depth to a topic and how it affect how you live today. But perhaps be prepared to put it down for a while to let your brain recover before moving on. Also, we have so much written record from these early settlers, more and more I wonder just how much of our written records will survive.
In Unfamiliar Fishes Sarah Vowell brings to life the time in the history of the United States when it transforms into a world power for the first time and begins to most closely resemble the United States we have today.. Set with a Hawaiian backdrop Vowell explores the reality of missionaries and imperialistic conquests at the end of the Spanish-American War.
Vowell accomplishes in her writing a goal I can only hope to dream of achieving. She makes history relatable and interesting while also doing the legwork and primary source research to substantiate the thesis. Vowell’s books are intended to entertain as well as educate so occasionally locating the thesis is not the easiest thing, but here’s the big ideas of this work: the United States as we know it, and particularly the 50th state, show the long-term effects of missionaries and trades people on indigenous populations.
While this work focuses on the missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the sailors who arrived on Hawaii’s shores as part of the whaling and later sugar trades, it is the larger story of the transformation of the archipelago from the time of Kamehameha I to the dethroning of Queen Liliuokalani and the Americanization of those islands. It is not always an easy read, and it’s another example of a work without chapter breaks (and 235 pages), but it is a fascinating piece of our history which is often overlooked in a typical education. So pick it up and learn some things you didn’t know and have a laugh along the way.
It’s quite shocking what a difference a few years can make when you go about rereading books. I picked up Partly Cloudy Patriot from my bookshelf last week mostly because although I knew I had read it, I couldn’t remember the particulars. Also, I was waiting for a book to come down the friend tree.
I really like Sarah Vowell’s writing, and I identify with her as a similarly minded person. Her opinions and habits ring true to me, even if she tends to take those opinions, behaviors, and habits to the extreme. Like David Sedaris, Vowell approaches her work as a series of vignettes, many of which formerly saw life in magazines or radio spots as she is a regular contributor to This American Life. Vowell is, for me, an exemplar of proficient writing. The language is rich, but does not leave one with a stomach ache.
What really struck me with this read was the content. Partly Cloudy Patriot was put together in 2002 and many of the stories included in the anthology reflect what life was like in the months following President George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and less than a year later the September 11th attack. These events have become the watershed moments for a generation, but we tend to only think about them in the long-term or the ‘where were you when’ contexts. It’s interesting to me to see where we were as it was happening, and before the rewriting of memory takes hold.
It should be noted that not all of the entries in Partly Cloudy Patriot reflect on these two events, but it is certainly akin to reading a time capsule sent forward a decade. I also realized that there are several of Vowell’s books I haven’t read, so that’s good news for me as well based on this impulse read.