Pilgrim’s progress in the modern world

It might be Sarah Vowell’s unusual voice that grabs your attention, but it’s her wit and intelligence that will keep you hooked.

It might be Sarah Vowell’s unusual voice that grabs your attention, but it’s her wit and intelligence that will keep you hooked. The writer, known for her knowledge of American history and patriotism that doesn’t conjure images of fast food and imperialism, will be reading tomorrow night from her new book, The Wordy Shipmates.

You might be familiar with Vowell’s comic pieces on National Public Radio’s This American Life, or perhaps you know her as a critic and reporter who regularly contributes to a diverse spectrum of magazines, from The New York Times to Esquire. Her voice also played a star role as Violet Parr in The Incredibles. A humorist, columnist and even the president of a nonprofit, Vowell displays an in-depth knowledge on all things American, from presidential assassinations to Tom Cruise.

The Wordy Shipmates, a New York Times bestseller already, is one of many books by Vowell that juxtapose America’s contemporary society with its history. She has previously written on murdered presidents in Assassination Vacation and history tourism in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, to name a few.

Her most recent work is a story of the unlikely friendship between John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first governor, and Roger Williams, the Calvinist minster who founded Rhode Island. Through these lesser-known historical characters, she weaves a humorous story of the New England Puritans and how their religious ideas impacted the emerging nation.

John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” inspired the story. He believed his colony was chosen by God to “be as a city upon a hill,” a quote that has been used on an unlikely number of occasions throughout history. President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan are a few who have invoked Winthrop’s words. Other references that Winthrop made to moral law, wisdom and justice have been equally potent in American thought.

Intertwined in this historic scene are a number of references to modern culture and politics, linking past and present. The concurrence of religious freedom and strict religious doctrines still strikes up bloodthirsty debates, just as it did 300 years ago. The public riff that occurred between Winthrop and Williams highlights a tension in American politics that still exists today.

Vowell might shake her head at being called a historian, but her facts are straight and her storytelling is superb. She can’t go more than a paragraph or two without making you giggle. It is her humor that makes this book so accessible.

The Wordy Shipmates first came out in hardback a year ago and this is its debut in paperback. If the cheaper price isn’t enough to get excited about, then the fact that the author will be reading and signing in town should tingle that nerdy historian inside you. Signed copies can be preordered and a number of the books will be available for purchase at Powell’s.