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What We’re Reading: The Wordy Shipmates

Post by Christine Wells
Posted May 20, 2013 in NoveList Bookshelf

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Ever wonder which Brady Bunch character Governor John Winthrop most resembles? If so, then this might be the book for you. The Wordy Shipmates presents a profile of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- now known as Boston. It is a witty, accessible, and, at times, incredibly cheeky account of these early settlers. Along the way, these plucky underdogs founded communities based on the radical principles of democracy while simultaneously maintaining a rigid ideological conformity. Vowell gives a complex and nuanced portrait of the settlement and its leaders, praising their communitarian ideals while remaining candid about their many flaws, including the atrocities committed against the native peoples. 

What makes The Wordy Shipmates unique is that it is in equal measure snarky and sincere, blending history, sarcasm, pop culture, wistful idealism, and disappointed cynicism. Vowell does a commendable job characterizing and empathizing with historical figures, so that when Roger Williams is exiled into a devastating New England winter or Henry Vane meets a tragically unfair end, historical facts resonate with emotional significance as well. The Wordy Shipmates would appeal to readers of history, historical fiction, political commentary, and satire; it employs elements of all these genres. It's a mixed bag, just like American history.


Christine is a NoveList staff member who specializes in audio books. She likes to read widely -- from early modern poetry and drama to literary fiction and fantasy authors.