The whole reason I love writing about history is precisely because its so juicy, says National Public Radio essayist turned best-selling author Sarah Vowell. Theres so much death and violence and pettiness and jealousy and the occasional high-minded idealist.
Thats certainly the case with The Wordy Shipmate -- the excuse for her appearance tonight. The book deals with the Puritans, a group that tends to become uninteresting to school-goers the moment they grow too old for Thanksgiving pageants. Still, Vowell finds the period, not to mention characters such as communitarian phrasemaker John Winthrop and relentless idealist Roger Williams, to be extremely relatable. Its funny to me that the whole Puritan period wouldnt be interesting to high school students, because to me, so much of whats entertaining about the story is that it is so high school, like most things in life, she notes. All the bickering and the feuds and the cliques and the outcast weirdo. It seems like if I were an outcast weirdo -- not that Im not -- Roger Williams would be an incredibly entertaining person to know about.
Rather than writing about these events with predictable staidness, Vowell treats the past and present in a fluid manner, jumping back and forth in time with aplomb. She works with references to everything from Brady Bunch episodes to a misbegotten tourist attraction focused on the Pequot War. So is one of her goals to make history accessible instead of forbidding?
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If youd asked me that question three years ago, I would probably have pooh-poohed that as a motive. But I think Im just ready to cop to it more now -- my educational bent, she concedes. Thats not my first goal. My first goal is just as a writer. But I do feel that certainly, within the last few years, it would be handy for, say, some of our elected officials to be a little more mindful of our history.