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Originally published Monday, October 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Wordy Shipmates": Puritans' fervent theology becomes comically droll history lesson

Only Sarah Vowell could make the Puritans entertaining — the National Public Radio commentator's new book, "The Wordy Shipmates," is a meditation on the pious, earnest, loquacious folks who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell appears Monday, Oct. 13, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sarah Vowell

The author of "The Wordy Shipmates" will read at 7:30 tonight at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5, or free with purchase of the book; for more information, contact the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com), or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.

"The Wordy Shipmates"

by Sarah Vowell

Riverhead, 272 pp., $24.95

BOOK REVIEW

Everybody knows about the Pilgrims. Their history is a bedrock part of the American story. Who among us didn't perform in Thanksgiving pageants as a kid? (In our celebrations, my little sister never got a speaking part — she was the white-capped girl carrying a sign saying, "One year later.")

Less famous are the Puritans, the pious folk who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. Fewer pageants are devoted to them, anyway.

(The differences between the two groups are complex and subtle. The Puritans were Protestants who remained loyal to Britain but nonetheless wanted to reform the Church of England. The Pilgrims — who settled in Plymouth Colony nine years earlier — were a more radical subset, known as Separatists, wanting to separate completely from the Church of England both physically and spiritually.)

Sarah Vowell aims to counter this neglect with her absorbing new book, "The Wordy Shipmates." Vowell, a regular contributor to public radio, is the author of, among others, "Take the Cannoli" and "Assassination Vacation." She's a complex blend: part brilliant essayist, part pop-culture-loving comedian and a full-time unabashed history geek. The mixture makes her both proudly pointy-headed and forever entertaining.

But why would a humorist and self-described atheist tackle something as unhip and devout as the Puritans? Part of the answer lies in Vowell's affection for their impassioned (if often wacky) beliefs, as noted in a 2007 interview:

"I have my favorite Puritans, and they're all so different from each other, bickering ... and banishing each other ... The stars of Puritanism always seemed like such interesting individuals to me, especially their writings. I mean, I love a good sermon where devils are walking the streets in chains and there's a lot at stake."

But a deeper reason, she explains here, is that in her post-Sept. 11 grief she found comfort in Puritan leader John Winthrop's faith in cooperative effort. About Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," she writes: "[D]ig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads ... like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along."

She's adept at deconstructing other Puritan texts, as well, in which various factions trash each other over teeny-tiny theological differences. She then draws incisive parallels to other, more current conflicts fueled by teeny-tiny religious differences.

And she loves to throw in references to pop culture. Take this passage linking Winthrop with another leader who borrowed his ideas: "Talking about ... 'A Model of Christian Charity' without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You' and pretending Whitney Houston didn't exist. Whitney and Reagan's covers were way more famous than the original versions ever were."

Or dig her careful parsing of Pilgrim episodes from such classic TV fare as "The Brady Bunch," "Happy Days" and "Bewitched." (Though Vowell focuses on the Puritans, "The Wordy Shipmates" sometimes dips into Pilgrim stuff — especially when it comes to TV, since few if any TV sitcoms feature Puritan episodes.)

But even here she has a serious point to make:

"Check out those barbarian idiots [in the sitcoms] with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.

"My point being, the amateur historian's next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid."

Sprinkled throughout this book are Vowell's trademark personal anecdotes, including the Montana-raised author's visit to Massachusetts' main city:

"Coming from the West, where history, like everything else, is so spread out, and even then it's mostly grubby Indian wars and greedy copper barons with a little Lewis and Clark in between, I never get sick of the way every inch of Boston seems so jam-packed with the important past."

There are way too few of these personal asides, to my mind, and the book's doses of hefty theology may dismay some readers. For the most part, though, the writer remains her usual droll, big-hearted self. Vowell's breezy style often disguises her solid craft and the richer messages below her work's shiny surface, so don't be fooled. She's a genuine treasure.

Adam Woog's column on crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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