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THE WORDY SHIPMATES

SARAH VOWELL

Nonfiction
October 2008

Published by Riverhead Books/Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
ISBN:9781594489990

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne said it best about the Puritans examined, vilified and honored in this no-nonsense, all-points-of-view historical treatment by the iconoclastic Sarah Vowell, "Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages."

A pre-requisite for reading this book is the ability to hold focus, as the author dances between past and present with historical figures, events and analysis, not always in a linear fashion. But the work is well worth the effort, for here is an author who forces us to think about just much our ancestoral legacy has shaped our domestic and foreign political policy in and beyond America. And if the reader is too lazy to do so, well Ms. Vowell covers innumerable bases before she concludes with a realistic slam-dunk, home-run vision of Puritans shaping a new land.

It all begins with some terse debunking of our stereotypical, Brady-bunch Thanksgiving dinner style picture of Puritans sitting down with the native Indians. We get a full account of the Catholic-Protestant debate back home in merry 'ol England to the point where we realize that emigration was better than the looming death waiting off-stage had they remained in England. Ms. Vowell also gives us, through examination fo the writings of John Winthrop, a superb analysis of a successful leader in those times, an intelligent, dogmatic and even dictatorial guy who knew how to spin Biblical verses into sermons that guaranteed communal agreement and obedience to authority, meaning himself, of course. The vision is clearly set forth, one to which any American might gravitate in dark times: United we stand, Divided we fall. Simple!

A large portion of this account covers the hugely antagonistic relationship between John Winthrop and Roger Williams, the latter a more excessive version of Puritanism than even those staid Puritan figures who found entertainment in attending Church several times a week. Williams attempted to teach the Native Indians in Providence the concept of original sin; the results of that effort don't make for pretty reading, understandable as it may seem if one stops long enough to really think about hearing such an idea for the first time.

Finally, we have a brief but potent treatment of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan "brain" of the bunch, the original American Oprah, who preached that one could only know if one were saved by "feeling" it. Excommunication to the Bronx followed her vociferous preaching; the uninhabited Bronx, not the presently densely populated city within a city.

Satire, alternatingly droll with interspersed raucous humor, reflection, challenge, and meditation fill these pages with so much history connected to Nixon, Reagan, 911 and so much more that the reader occasionally has to stop or risk overload. But it's an overload that is far too infrequently heard and a welcome, refreshing burst of fresh air whirling through older significant times to hopefully create a historical future different because of this notable reading experience. Finely, finely done!

Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on February 9, 2009

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