Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Wordy Shipmates" by Sarah Vowell

We picked this audiobook based on the fact that I like authors who contribute to public radio programs and Tami has a copy of this book in softcover, but has not gotten around to reading it.  

Summary: This book is a non-fiction account of the colonies in and around the land that became Massachusetts. Sarah Vowell spent years reading primary sources from the era and visiting sites important to the history. The source she explicitly refers to the most is the personal diary of John Winthrop, who played a central role in the founding and managing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell discusses the lives of the colonists before they ever left England, and what it was like to sail across the Atlantic. She quotes often from the men and women, directly from their written words. She discusses the early years of the colony, including the life of the Charter, the religious disagreements and the banishments doled out for those who were deemed a danger to the colony. The native Americans also play a big role in this book, for their continuous relations with the Europeans. At times they were allies and at times they were at war. Vowell explores the reasons for both, with a personal interest since she can trace her descendants to both sides of the ocean, pre-Columbus.

What I Liked: Vowell let a lot of the historical figures speak in their own words a lot, using a lot of direct quotes from letters, diaries and texts written at the time. I learned a lot about the colony, as I never really studied this particular group in school and felt no compulsion to investigate before this book.

What I Didn't Like: This audiobook has multiple voice actors, including Vowell herself. Each character has a unique actor for when they are quoted. It was fine when they recited a paragraph or more, but Vowell often would quote a single word of phrase and it was really disorienting to hear two voices interrupt each other while working to finish a sentence. I wish that they had handled it differently. Of course, you wont notice that if read the book.

I also found the material was presented in a form that reminded me of a history lecture. Tami did not finish the book, and I doubt I would have been able to finish without the audiobook setting the pace for me.

Rating: Skip it, unless you are a fan of Sarah Vowell.

Also Read by this Author: None.

Reviewed by: Nick


  1. This doesn't sound like typical Sarah Vowell, so please don't let it sour you on her other works (essays) which are quite funny!

    1. I have enjoyed her contributions on public radio, This American Life and such, but that is a different format than this book. Can you recommend a book by her that you really enjoyed? We will check it out!

  2. I have read The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Assassination Vacation, and Take The Cannoli and all are good. It has been a number of years since, but I think I'd recommend in that order for Tami's history/civics love.