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Pilgrims' sermons echo in Sarah Vowell's ears

She hears our ancestors in today's dialogue and jots it down in 'Wordy Shipmates.'

November 02, 2008|Erika Schickel | Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

Sarah Vowell has a face like a clean plate: round and serviceable, perfect for dishing up history. On a weekday morning in Santa Monica, she is wearing a dark, square-necked blouse, hair in a slightly stylish version of a bowl cut; she wouldn't look entirely wrong in a starched collar. Vowell -- author, "This American Life" contributor, voice of Violet Parr in "The Incredibles" -- has come to town to give a pair of readings from her new book, "The Wordy Shipmates" (Riverhead: 272 pp., $25.95), an account of the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To meet her is to wonder how much her subject has rubbed off on her.

"The Wordy Shipmates" focuses on John Winthrop, Massachusetts' first governor, and Roger Williams, the Calvinist minister who founded Rhode Island. It covers the period between Plymouth Rock and the Salem witch trials. "One reason it was attractive to write about the Puritans," Vowell says, "whatever else they are, they're obsessed with knowledge and reading. I love in that letter one of Winthrop's friends sends him when Winthrop is trying to decide whether to come to New England and his friend basically says, 'Why would you want to go there? They don't have any books.' "

Vowell grew up Pentecostal in a small Oklahoma town without a library. Bible study was the center of communal life. "Once, when I told a member of the fabled East Coast Media Elite that I was raised Pentecostal," she writes in "The Wordy Shipmates," "he asked if that meant I grew up 'fondling snakes in trailers.' I replied, 'You know that book club you're in? Well, my church was a lot like that, except we actually read the book.' "

Part Cherokee, Vowell got her history at home from her father and grandfather. "Every summer we would go to the Cherokee Cultural Center to watch a reenactment of the Trail of Tears," she recalls. Her great-grandfathers -- or is it great-great-grandfathers? Vowell isn't really certain -- fought in the Civil War, and "it was just all the old folks sitting around telling stories. The way my grandfather talked about history was fairly self-absorbed."

Vowell has taken this idea of storytelling and given it her own spin -- a mix of pop culture and historical narrative that goes after big ideas. In 1998, after bouncing around various alt-weeklies and dabbling in music writing, she retraced the Trail of Tears for "This American Life." "That was it for me," she says, smiling. She had discovered her calling: American history.

For Vowell, though, history is academic if we can't connect with it. At one point during her radio story, she is in the car, between sites of ancestral suffering, listening to Chuck Berry. "When I think about my relationship with America," she tells us, "I feel like a battered wife, 'Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance.' "

In "The Wordy Shipmates," she compares Winthrop to Pete Seeger and Williams to Bob Dylan. "To me," she explains, "those guys are all writers; they're all writing about America and these American subjects, and big questions and religion and country and God, and to me they're all of a piece."

These comparisons are funny, ironic even, but there's something more expansive going on. "I love comedy," Vowell says, "and I admire people whose sole purpose is to make people laugh, but it's not mine. I reserve the right to be dreary if I want to." For her last book, "Assassination Vacation," she visited sites related to the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. "The same part of me that loves Quentin Tarantino," she notes, "visits Gettysburg."

With "The Wordy Shipmates," Vowell steps away from what she calls "heritage tourism." Instead of visiting historic sites, she mentally time travels through the letters and diaries of Winthrop and Williams, John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, as well as other voices of the great migration.

But "The Wordy Shipmates" is hardly plain history. The big idea here is that the past continues to define us as Americans: people with a history of bookishness, elitist pursuits and a humble, Calvinist heritage. "It's worth revisiting New England's Puritans because they are our medieval people." Vowell writes, "The most storied way to get from the castle moat of monarchy to the polluted shoreline of this here republic is on their dank little ships." On one of these dank little ships, Winthrop gave his "Model of Christian Charity" speech, referring to New England as the "city upon a hill." This famous speech, invoked by both presidents and dissidents, was credited by Tocqueville as marking the birth of American exceptionalism.

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