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Sarah Vowell is awesome.

I have been a fan of hers since I started listening to NPR about ten years ago. Her quirky voice — instantly standing out against the more “smooth” radio voices — and wry observations made her recognizable and memorable long before I remembered the names of any other personalities I was hearing. Well, with the exception of David Sedaris, who stokes very similar fires. The chances are good that if you love one of them you love the other. But that’s another story.

Recently Ms. Vowell published a new book called The Wordy Shipmates, and it is packed full of what you’d expect from her and quite a bit that I did not expect at all. For I did not realize that The Wordy Shipmates is an American history book and an excellent one at that.

The book begins with the sailing of the Arbella from Southampton in 1630 and not the pilgrims that landed in Plymouth in 1620 — The Wordy Shipmates barely touches on Plymouth pilgrims, preferring to follow the line of history that began with the colonization of what is now Boston. It follows the wars of words and weaponry to the end of the century, delving deeply into the writings of these people as they attempted to colonize the land and build new lives. Ms. Vowell weaves together many threads of early American history — some familiar, others less so — in order to paint a much more full picture of this time than you’re likely to find elsewhere. You at least will be hard pressed to find one in as enjoyable and readable a binding as this book.

What I enjoyed most about The Wordy Shipmates is its conversational tone. Vowell floats effortlessly through what could have been a very dry account of Anne Hutchinson’s hearing under John Winthrop, for example, bringing these and other important historical figures to life rather than merely presenting their facts. The past she is covering is also linked smoothly to the present and other times in American history, too, following the actions taken by the puritan leaders as they ripple through the ages. As an added bonus, she points out little factoids like the tables-turned sequel to the Hutchinson/ Winthrop debate more than two hundred years later between descendants of each. (I won’t ruin the surprise if you don’t know about this)

This is one of those rare books that reads like a butterfly but teaches like a bee. You’ll be pleasantly surprised upon putting down the book when you realize that you are more knowledgeable about this dangerous and critical stage in American history, for this book is the historical bridge between pre-Colonial times and the later turbulent birth of our nation.

Pick it up and tell me what you think. But I have to reiterate:

Sarah Vowell is awesome.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell


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