Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates (Book 51 of 100)

Yet another Sarah Vowell book. I think, as I mention before, I'm becoming obsessed with this person. I go through that with writers sometimes. So far, on this literary journey, my obsessions have included A.J. Jacobs, Eoin Colfer, J.D. McHale, and now Sarah Vowell. For a while, I was into Barbara Ehrenreich, but that was much more of a flirtation than an obsession.

Sarah Vowell is, I think, one of the only people who could make the puritans seem funny. She makes every seem funny. Her take on puritanism and the bible were a refreshing look for someone like myself who has been so immersed in biblical studies. I never knew anything about the puritans except that they were anti-sex, anti-fun, and anti-self. They practiced a very strict doctrine of Christianity called Calvinism. This is, according to Vowell, "capitalism in disguise." People are taught to just obey authority to the detriment of themselves and their communities.

John Winthrop, who was a major puritan leader, however, seemed to have a very similar leanings to the United Church of Christ which I attend. In the UCC, we believe, as Winthrop in "mourning together, suffer together." Of course in our belief system at the UCC, we also believe in celebrating together. The Puritans were not much for celebrating. I like the way Vowell equates the Puritan dedication to community to New Yorkers' dedication to community after 9/11. She lives in New York and so can talk about this without sounding cliche. She tells about a time when people were relieved that they could so something besides mourn that following her request for toothpaste for rescue workers, her entire local bodega was cleaned out. She said it was so nice to have something else to do besides inhale "incinerated glasses of steel but also we knew incinerated human beings." Buying toothpaste givers her something to do that was productive and helpful in addition to "breathing the cremated lungs of the dead." They could help to "clean the teeth of living."

As frequently happens to me when I read Vowell's works, something I never thought of but in retrospect makes a lot of sense occurred to me. The Puritans are as Vowell puts it "America's Medieval people." They didn't have what we would consider a very evolved society. They were very sexist, racist, xenophobic, and other bad things. But I don't think there would be an American without them.

The clashes with Native Americans were, as they should have been, a big feature in this book, especially since Vowell is partially Vowell is partially Native American. She's part Cherokee like me--something else we have in common. She spends a lot of time discussing one particular Mohegan leader named Uncas. He actually sided with the English against his fellow tribes. But Vowell doesn't take him to task too much over this because as she says his goal was "Mohegan survival." She further adds, "What he did was not pretty, it wasn't even right, but it worked." As an organizer, myself, I am frequently faced with making similar decisions, although with no where as severe consequences. I'm sure lots of Jews got into bed with Nazis just to survive, not because they like it. I know within both the LGBT and disability rights movements, we have sometimes had to limit protections so bills would get passed. This is not ever a happy occurrence. And most modern organizers feel bad about doing it. Sometimes, it is a choice between a bill that covers some people and a bill that never gets passed. When you have to make these kinds of decisions, the ideal plan is to make them knowing that you will eventually come back with a part of the community that was included in the first bill and includes them in future versions thereof. I don't know if that was ever Uncas' plan,. but I hope so.

Some of the surviving remnants of the Pequot tribe were actually recognized in federal court in the 80s and went on to found Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Miss Vowell, her twin sister Amy, and her nephew Owen stayed at the Mohegan Sun hotel while she was finishing this book. A conversation she had with her nephew during this visit is one of the saddest dialogs I've ever seen between an adult and a child. It follows:

Owen:name a state where there was never a war.

Sarah:"I'm not sure a I can."

Owen: "Name the state where there was the least war."

Sarah: "I don't know. Idaho?"

It turned out she was wrong.

The last thing I would like to comment on is the fact that I never knew Ann Hutchinson was such a cool person. I never knew anything about her at all. I didn't even know the Hutchinson Parkway which runs between New York and Boston was named for her. Like me, Hutchinson believed that every person's salvation was due to his or her own personal relationship with God. You didn't need a minister to help you interact with God, you could do it yourself. In Puritanical New England, however, such beliefs were considered seditious. In the end, Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts and labeled a witch because she said God talked to her directly. I think, on several occasions, God has talked to me as well. I guess we would have both been banished. Unlike Hutchinson, I think I would have had the presence of mind to simply deny this truth to the magistrates, all the while believing. But she had a "contentional, chatty bent" that got her into trouble and in this case got her banished along with her 15 children, husband and several followers. I want to learn more about Anne Hutchinson. There were so many amazing women in American history, but we never learn about them.

I rate this book a 8.75. You'll like it. It teaches you a lot about the country, but doesn't groan on and on like high school history classes. In this way, Sarah Vowell is very similar to Barbara Ehrenreich except that Vowell's specialty is history not economics. A little laughter goes a long way towards making the brain more receptive to data. I must admit, I am sad that at this point Sarah Vowell has written no other books. She has an essay in several anthologies (all of which are in my to-be-read file). Didn't I tell you I was a bit obsessed. I'm eagerly awaiting her next book. Maybe she'll come to Pittsfield again. That's close to where I live. Maybe I'll get to meet her. I wonder if I'll be able to say anything.

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