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January 9, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | January 9, 2009 |

(Publisher’s Note: For those keeping track at home, Marra Alane has pulled into third place in the Cannonball Read, right behind Prisco, who is clinging to a small lead over Sophie).

As I think I’ve already made pretty clear, I’m super gay for Sarah Vowell. I think she’s brilliant, funny, and has a singular voice when it comes to narrating historical subjects that may at first seem dull. Following the formation of the Boston Colony from its start in England to its splintering into the several factions, using primarily old court documents, John Winthrop’s diary, and a Brady Bunch episode, The Wordy Shipmates is a very witty and entertaining look at both the history of the Puritans as well as their own philosophies.

First of all, John Winthrop is a hell of guy. By today’s standards, he’s unbelievably harsh — he orders a man’s ears to be cut off and banished from the colony. However, he allows the man to stay until winter is over, which doesn’t go over well with some other colonists, who feel Winthrop was a bit of a pansy when it comes to punishment. However, he’s also pure of heart and truly believes in the brotherhood and selflessness of their religion to the point where his “City on a Hill” sermon isn’t some retarded Reagan line but something even I want to believe in. The line the Puritans are teetering on between outright treason of the British Crown and following their religious convictions is precarious at best — it’s a constant struggle to serve both the King and God. If religious friction is the kind of thing your interested in, it plays out like a melodrama; it’s fascinating.

As for the Puritans dealings with the Native Americans, it’s one of those situations where you understand what happened theoretically, and you know it’s horrifying, but when someone spells it out for you it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase white guilt. I mean, I have ancestors who settled the colonies. Which means I had ancestors who gave more than just smallpox blankets; I had ancestors who set a village full of innocents on fire and systematically shot the women and children who fled the inferno. As Vowell points out, it’s helpful to remember that these people are far closer to the Inquisition than the Enlightenment when it comes to the historical timeline; but still, it’s difficult to comprehend.

Which isn’t to say the Indians don’t do a fair amount of fucking themselves over. Each tribe is jockeying for supremacy, and the politics between them is both devious and fascinating — especially with Uncas, Metacomet, and the wars between the Dutch and English. Uncas, for example, wasn’t like the movie Last of the Mohicans portrays him to be — a lovable sidekick, but rather a manipulative, unctuous bastard who threw his own brethren to the wolves. He does these things not because he’s a bad man, but because he sees the writing on the wall, and realizes that the only way his people can survive is through the protection of the English. And even then, it’s pretty much hopeless. But hey, we named my high school after King Philip, so it’s all good.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Marra Alane’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / Marra Alane

Books | January 9, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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