If given a choice between a novel and nonfiction, I’ll usually pick the former. While I like history, science, biography and cultural studies, I prefer stories, and surprisingly few nonfiction authors seem to know how to tell a story. They're so proud of the facts they uncovered that they list them at tedious length, or, discovering the topic isn't large enough to fill a whole book, pad the facts with irrelevant and/or unfounded speculations.
But last week I read Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates,” a look at what the Puritan founding fathers (and some mothers) were really like (as opposed to the grade school-TV sitcom caricatures with which we all grew up) and was delighted to discover Sarah Vowell knows how to tell a story.
The title comes from the fact that the Puritans were both avid readers and writers, including diaries, letters, pamphlets, books and laws. She focuses not on the Plymouth Puritan pilgrims but on the later Boston Puritans. In many ways they were admirable and principled, but like Libertarians or the Tea Party, they didn’t suffer dissension well. Remember, most of them didn’t come here championing the idea of religious freedom for all but rather the right to worship in their own particular way; heretics were often banished, sometimes minus their ears.
Vowel’s book isn’t all that wordy, at only 150 pages or so. In addition to the historical fact, she adds personal reminisces of visiting Puritan sites and tourist attractions from her perspective as a descendant of Native Americans who had their own interactions with the Puritans.
I intend to look for more books by Sarah Vowell.