Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
$15.77 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 9781594489990
The conditions under which a country is founded affects its entire history. Australia got the convicts, and we here in the United States got the religious separatists. America has long considered itself a nation of strong religious values founded on Christian principles. In this clever, thought-provoking, and surprisingly funny new book, Sarah Vowell examines exactly what these values are by considering the Puritans who first settled in Massachusetts.
Our story begins as noted Puritan minister John Cotton delivers a sermon to a group of settlers about to board the ship Arbella in 1630, bound for Cape Cod and the first of many long, hard winters digging tree stumps out of the frozen ground. He compares this group to the ancient Israelites crossing into Canaan, an especially appropriate metaphor since the wholesale slaughter of the Native Americans will shortly follow, much like King David's brutal conquest 
of the Philistines.
In fact, when Smallpox decimates the Indian population, it is said that God used the plague to clear the heathens off the land as the settlers arrived. A lovely sentiment, delivered by John Winthrop, the leader of the Arbella settlers. His particular brand of zealotry would cast a dark,paranoid, and egomaniacal shadow over events in the colony's future. Winthrop's sermons would influence politicians such as Ronald Reagan, and our own George W. Bush.
More than two-thirds of this desperate group of pilgrims would die during the first difficult winter. Soon the area would descend into the chaos of the Salem Witch trials.
It is interesting to note, as Vowell does, that most of our knowledge of the Puritans comes from TV sitcoms. The Brady Bunch produced an episode in which Greg filmed a home movie about them, using his family as the actors. Happy Days produced a similar episode, in which Fonzie wins the support of the Native Americans. Clearly we feel more deeply connected to the TV Puritans than those who actually founded our country.
So who were these people, really? Were they just a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgemental killjoys? Why did they leave warm, comfy England to live in terror in uncharted territory? This is a very light, easy to read introduction to the founding of our country, and a delightful musing on what "American Values" really are.

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