Why write—or read—a book about early American settlers? It's a fair question, and one trenchantly addressed in the early pages of Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates: "The country [we] live in is haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire."
She goes on, "In the present-day United States, the Massachusetts Puritans' laughable, naïve, and self-aggrandizing idea that they were leaving England partly to come over and help American Indians who were simply begging for their assistance has won out over the Founding Fathers' philosophy of not firing shots in other countries' wars."
Vowell concerns herself here with the window of time in between the two most widely known events in early American history: the arrival of the Mayflower settlers on Plymouth Rock in 1620, and the Salem witch trials of 1692, peopling her loose history with an array of well-researched figures, from settlers squabbling over the finer points of religious intolerance to Native Americans desperately trying to preserve their people.
Vowell deftly navigates the "microscopic theological differences" between early settlers, laying out the history and evolution of the Puritans' religious beliefs and the various factions within the colonies. If that sounds dry, it isn't: She peppers the book with chatty asides and contemporary historical references, never missing an opportunity to point out examples of the virulent strain of exceptionalism which America has harbored since its inception. If the frequent incursion of contemporary references into the 1630s makes for an occasionally confusing timeline, it is that same willingness to interject that makes the book as a whole relevant. Vowell's conclusion that the Protestant tradition's democratization of religion had dangerous consequences feels particularly pertinent—she argues that it inspires a "dangerous disregard for expertise... a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about." We've seen it before in our politics—here's hoping we're not about to see it again.