By Elizabeth Hemmerdinger

Sarah Vowell, author of “The Wordy Shipmates,” who I’d actually never heard of until I saw her on David Letterman’s show one recent night, now has a place of honor in my heart.  Everybody who can help me laugh out loud makes the cut.   Anybody who can make me do that while talking about the Puritans… well, call her High Priestess, far as I’m concerned.

I’m could have sworn I knew the difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans.  I didn’t. But here’s a little clarity.  Pilgrims: radicals, separatists, not terribly community-minded.  Puritans: loyal to England and Protestants, who wanted (merely) reform, John Winthrop led a group across the high and treacherous sea to found Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. Sarah Vowell sees in his writing and actions as Governor the cornerstone of a nation working cooperatively and getting along.  That would be us, the U.S., at our best.


Ms. Vowell, and I wish I actually knew her well enough to call her Sarah, tells us of her grief after 9-11, the roots of the familiar old saw “the shining city on a hill,” often enough cited by presidents to rival “purple mountains’ majesty,” for best in show of the cliched phrase.  And yet, this author brings new meaning to the evolution of our country’s finest impulses.  At just the right time in our history.


Ms. Vowell is part Cherokee, which perhaps I shouldn’t have told you; since she doesn’t mention it for quite a while into the book.  It’s a wonderful shock, when it does come up, since the author’s been describing the peregrinations of the early European settlers and the peoples who so graciously welcomed them to their native shores.

For the feminists amongst us, you’ll also get a juicy section late in the book on Ann Hutchinson.  She made the voyage, following her husband to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with her fifteen children.  Yup.  Fifteen. Hutchinson is a symbol of religious freedom, liberal thinking and Christian feminism.  Who knew?  Even though I use the eponymous Hutchinson River Parkway often enough to call it “The Hutch.”  Never again.  Anne will get her due, far as I’m concerned.   Wikipedia tells us she was “a key figure in the study of the development of religious freedom in England’s American colonies and the history of women in ministry.”  She was a kind midwife, too.  And hosted a book club in her home.  Okay, so the book was the bible.

First a few women came; then more than sixty; then men, too. (Hello, Oprah, are you listening?) And so Anne Hutchinson was put on trial and banished. And they followed her; first to Portsmouth, and then… not telling… read the book.

You can find  many delightful and delighted reviews — here’s Adam Woog’s for the Seattle Times, Robert Faires’ in The Austin Chronicle. There’s also one seriously grumpy one in the New York Times Book Review by Virginia Heffernan, but nobody’s perfect.

I know I said it before, but it bears repeating. This book? Laugh out loud funny.  I love listening to audio books, and, luckily this is one I’d chosen to put on my iPod.  So, if you’d caught me walking the dog, getting my teeth cleaned, on the subway, in elevators, you’d have seen me laughing. Thank you, Ms. Vowell, I’m smarter, my endorphins are up a couple of notches, and I find myself conversing at dinner tables on a whole array of subjects previously unavailable to me.  I am even grateful to Ms. Heffernan for telling me that Ms. Vowell is the voice of Violet in “The Incredibles,” so even reading her grouchy review, after I’d so enjoyed the book, was not for naught.

Here’s a gift I’m giving myself for Christmas: I’m going to download a couple more of the Vowell oeuvre and turn up the volume as the dreadful daily news would otherwise reverberate in my head.  And I’m giving the book itself to many on my holiday list; even if they don’t have my audio-predeliction, they’ll get a good laugh and a great grounding in the possibilities of pulling ourselves together to form a more perfect union.

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  • Women's Voices For Change December 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I just finished the book. Even given her gifts, I couldn’t believe she actually had me *crying* at the end. And, of course, I can.
    – Chris L.

    Reply
  • Women's Voices For Change December 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I just finished the book. Even given her gifts, I couldn’t believe she actually had me *crying* at the end. And, of course, I can.
    – Chris L.

    Reply
  • Women's Voices For Change December 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I just finished the book. Even given her gifts, I couldn’t believe she actually had me *crying* at the end. And, of course, I can.
    – Chris L.

    Reply
  • Elizabeth W. December 5, 2008 at 9:44 am

    I’m pleased to see WVFC featuring Sarah Vowell’s writing. Her essays are sharp and timely.
    I recommend “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” as well.

    Reply