Writer and social commentator Sarah Vowell, known for her contributions to public radio’s “This American Life,” has made good use of her droll sense of humor and distinctive voice in the past.
She’s managed to take subjects as difficult as the Trail of Tears and presidential assassinations (the subject of her New York Times best-seller, Assassination Vacation) and make them somehow approachable, poignant, and relevant. Whether in print or over the airwaves, she adds spice to history with dashes of her personal experiences and wit.
Not so much in her new book, The Wordy Shipmates.
In this blending of history, memoir and social commentary, Vowell tackles another tough subject: Puritans.
Vowell seems ultra-aware of her subjects’ lack of sexiness. She warns early on, “Readers who squirm at microscopic theological differences might be unsuited to read a book about 17th century Christians.”
I don’t understand this apologetic tone. This is not because I have a deep-rooted passion for Puritans. Nope. I went into this read knowing basically what any grade-school child knows about the Puritans, if not less (Thanksgiving! Salem witch trials!).
Rather, it’s because there are parts of the book where I am convinced that Puritans are fascinating. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so of The Wordy Shipmates, I was riveted by Vowell’s investigations into Puritan life, which range from serious questions about the Puritan legacy in America, to personal revelations (after 9/11, Vowell found comfort in the words of Puritan Governor John Winthrop), to the just plain silly (at one point, Vowell compares the 17th century Puritan ministers to pop stars).
But the introduction just seemed to go on…and on…and on. The book is short—just under 250 pages—with no chapter divisions, creating a roving narrative that left me continually waiting for the climax.
There is one recurring theme in the book: Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” which contains the “as a city on a hill” phrase, famously appropriated by President Ronald Reagan. Winthrop’s teachings, Vowell explains, are America’s real inheritance from the Puritans—not the sexual repression and stodginess that so many assume is their legacy.
The city-on-a-hill mindset has led to some scary actions throughout American history, and Vowell’s at her best when exploring them. For example: “As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it’s still shining—because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation.”
But such moments of insight and dry humor just make the book’s overall failure to hang together more frustrating. Vowell too often wanders away from the heart of her argument. At one point, she digs extensively into the Pequot Indian War. I think the goal of this passage was to give an example of the “city on a hill” philosophy gone wrong, but it reads more like a 20-page non sequitur—when at this point, can you believe that I really just wanted to hear more about Puritan spiritual squabbling?
Maybe, I thought, it’s Vowell’s actual voice that I’m missing when reading her book. So I went to her “Live From Prairie Lights” reading on Oct. 24 hoping to make a connection. This special edition of the storied program, which has been a staple of public radio in Iowa for more than 15 years, was broadcast from the Englert Theatre. Unusually, it was a ticketed event, made more unusual only the purchase of the book could get you two tickets.
Vowell certainly saw a sales boost, because the Englert was packed—nearly 500 people filled the lower level and overflowed into the balcony. The audience’s excitement was palpable: As Vowell strode purposefully out onto the stage, their extended applause neared the point of discomfort.
I’m willing to bet that many of those 500 people left this reading feeling just as disappointed as I did.
I’d love to be able to tell you that I was disappointed because the book still didn’t hit home, even when delivered in Vowell’s sardonic nasal soprano. But I can’t. Because Vowell literally read seven paragraphs from her book the entire evening.
Vowell has a tendency to meander in her answers, which can be funny—or it can be boring and leave no time for actual reading. Even Vowell recognized she was not quite hitting the mark as she responded to long-time “Live from Prairie Lights” host Julie Englander’s first question, which asked her to sum up the entire book—characters, situation, how she got interested in the subject. Everything. “In the book—oh, yeah, the book, where I have time to think about I’m saying—it’s fascinating,” Vowell said.
Meandering answers also require astute follow-up questions, something Englander did not seem able to produce. She jumped from topic to topic with stilted or no transitions. Vowell remarked: “On the radio show I work on, to make transitions when there are none, we play music.”
Englander almost seemed star-struck, flubbing her words and creating awkward silences—the worst of which occurred when she asked Vowell to read a passage neither of them could find—and even once saying, “Sarah Vowell, you are wonderful.” I cringed in sympathetic embarrassment.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt that Vowell can be funny, and she certainly got some laughs that night, such as when she claimed the Massachusetts Bay Pilgrims to be her Pilgrims, or when she told an audience member that his question was “a very Grant Wood kind of way to ask about sex.”
But overall, at the reading as in the book, the good moments were all too rare. And we should expect more from a talent as esteemed as Vowell and a radio program as storied as “Live from Prairie Lights.”