Let me start by saying that is is not true that, if her great grandfather had not been processed through Ellis Island by a wiseacre, Sarah Vowell would be know today as Sara Aeiou. Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor the NPR weekend magazine show "This American Life," which is best known for bringing us such fine pieces of journalism as The Santaland Diaries. Her book does not disappoint.
The Wordy Shipmates is a short, concise, not at all wordy history of some of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts Bay colony. Starting with John Winthrop, who wrote and preached the sermon about "a city on a hill" that has been used and abused by John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to such good effect. We also have John Cotton, ancestor of the more well known Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, psychotically enthusiastic proponent of religious freedom and theological purity, who helped found Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson, the voice of God on earth and co-founder of Providence and even Mary Dyer, follower of Hutchinson until she becomes a Quaker and martyr to religious freedom at the hand of Winthrop and his fellow Boston magistrates. It is quite a merry crew of brawling Calvinists which Vowell gives us with tongue firmly implanted in cheek.
The gist of the book is that these people are responsible for giving us the great city of Boston. They are the ones who let a cow loose to lay out the city's streets. I'm sure that the blame for the Big Dig can be laid at their feet as well. I can't find my way around Boston with a GPS. Thanks a lot, guys.
They are also responsible in large part for our tradition of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. That concept is one of Roger Williams' crazy ideas, which got him banished from Massachusetts and is written into the charter of Rhode Island. It eventually found itself written into the First Amendment. Way to go Roger!
I can't tell you (actually I am trying to do that) how much I enjoyed reading Sarah Vowell's tale of trial and error, murder, war, bigotry, more murder, mass murder and other fun stuff, which became the foundation of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and the fine precedent they set for the founding of the United States. The Wordy Shipmates should be required reading for all American middle school students. It should be included in the lovingly crafted high stakes testing that will determine their future lives. It belongs right up there with the Thanksgiving episode of Happy Days.