The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell. Published in 2008.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to stand in line to vote, so the day before, I picked up a copy of The Wordy Shipmates for the queue. As it turns out, my wait was only about thirty minutes, but Sarah Vowell’s short history of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a worthwhile purchase—not to mention oddly appropriate for a post-election cool-down.

Vowell is the best kind of history buff, pulling off the difficult balancing act of placing people within their historical context while holding on to her own values and judgment. In other words, she is fair but not a moral relativist. She neither whitewashes the past nor condemns everyone who wouldn’t fit in at a contemporary urban liberal cocktail party, and she has a real appreciation for the quirks and foibles that transform people from generic historical figures into distinct individuals. Now that I think about it, Vowell is a talented popular historian for the same reason she’s a talented storyteller: she recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human beings.