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Scarlet letters

The uptight killjoy in us
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  October 9, 2008


Sarah Vowell’s fifth book, The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead) examines New England Puritans with a meticulously researched, critical-yet-comical eye. Included is a discussion of the Thanksgiving story, neatly condensed into a 30-minute tale and told via the shiny sitcom filter of shows like The Brady Bunch (which was “full of factual holes,” Vowell writes) and Happy Days.

This past year, when Vowell read this excerpt on a Thanksgiving-themed edition of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, host Ira Glass introduced it with the question: “What happens when comedies decide to take on the rather serious history of the United States of America? How do they do?”

Vowell, it turns out, does well. In The Wordy Shipmates, she travels to such historical sites as Plimoth Plantation, and wades through many lengthy, obnoxiously god-fearing, verbose documents. (“The Bible was the air they breathed,” she says). Vowell emerged on the other side with a solid grasp on who the Puritans were, and how their actions and values relate to past and present politics.

“They were incredibly judgmental, uptight killjoys,” says Vowell. “But fascinating ones. Who they were is part of who we are.”

Vowell notes that in the three years she spent researching this book, she came to appreciate the Massachusetts colonists’ understated qualities. “The thing I admire most about them is the way they privileged knowledge, despite the fact that their lives were so physically difficult. They came here to build a city — and they built Harvard first thing.”

The Wordy Shipmates is as informative as a high-school history textbook, but where texts rarely venture beyond dry and unbiased recounts, Vowell combines humorous observations, quirky historical retelling, and thoughtful insight, sometimes all within the same paragraph.

“It’s how I think,” she says. “I’m not a historian, I’m a writer. I do have a weird knack for extracting the juicier bits. It’s just kind of what I do.” This type of no-angle angle, she says, is a lesson gleaned from her time writing for This American Life.

“At newspapers, you have to fit into a section,” she says. “The way every TAL story is approached is, ‘What’s the best way to tell this story?’ Like, it’s okay to be serious one moment and funny the next. It’s enormously liberating.”

Sarah Vowell will read from The Wordy Shipmates on October 10, at 7 pm, at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline. Call 617.566.6660. Free. She will read again on October 11, at 7 pm at the First Parish Church, Mass Ave and Church Street, Cambridge, 617.661.1515. Admission $5.

  Topics: Books , Harvard University, Ira Glass, Sarah Vowell,  More more >
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