Retelling our Puritan Past with Sarah Vowell

shipI’ve previously written about Edmund Ingalls and his immigration from England to his descendants scattering across New England to the little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. I think my fascination with his immigration stems from it’s Puritan time period. Fascinating because Edmund does not fit the traditional grim, religious Puritan narrative. His reasons for leaving England fell more to the monetary and opportunistic side. I don’t know why I’m shocked that history books in middle school only glossed over this time period in a few themes but I find the complete image much more compelling. You have traveling on the ship a passenger that wants to strive for more then he could achieve in England and passengers arguing on the direction of the Protestant faith. And these passengers are even fighting each other.Puritans vs Separatists; a battle similar to the verbally jousting at a UFC pre-fight weight in. Religion vs money. If only they had a camel and eye of needle when they landed in New England these two factions could have figured out their difference early. Instead you have settlements from Plymouth, Salem and Boston emerge. Pilgrims, Puritans and guys like Edmund that simply came for the ride.

Sarah Vowell’s book The Wordy Shipmates embodies her love of Puritan history with her own biographical vignettes from researching the book. You’ll flash back between a Mayflower themed waterslide to combing through Governor Winthrop’s original journals. Her love of history and Puritans come out in a truly modern voice. “I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except the Catholics are going to hell.”  She humanized the Puritans for me, I’m almost routing for them to realize their “city on a hill”. Reading The Wordy Shipmates with my own focus on Edmund Ingalls made me appreciate even further their communities. It would have been incredibly frustrating to finally leave England for a safe religious haven only to have settlers tag along that don’t care about your negligible theological differences. It’s diving into these stories that keeps me writing and researching about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family. I’m finally filling in the gaps of my cursory middle school history lessons.

Go out and get all of Sarah Vowell’s books. I would say start with The Wordy Shipmates but let’s be honest you’ll just want the next one right after. Grab them all from the library and cuddle into the couch for the weekend.

Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. New York: Riverhead, 2008. Print.


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