I Am Sarah Vowell’s Target Geek

In the year 2006, I road tripped to Boise, Idaho, to aid in relocating my sister-in-law. To aid me in making this journey, I borrowed two books on compact disc: Nicholas Sparks’ The Wedding and Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. I practically cut off my ears during The Wedding (it was one of several book club disasters) during the drive through Minnesota and North Dakota. Assassination Vacation accompanied me in Montana, from Billings to Bozeman (a place I later learned Vowell worked as a college radio newscaster), leading eventually to Boise where my girlfriend and I delivered Kelli to her new abode.

When I heard about Vowell’s latest work The Wordy Shipmates, I gleefully recalled the humor and historical commentary Vowell delivered in Assassination Vacation. The Wordy Shipmates continued this through a careful dissection of John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Puritan framework of these early European settlers. Vowell examined religion’s role in shaping the worldview of not only the Puritans, but also of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the English environment that made these people set sail for North America. Vowell also wrote about how these settlers treated the Native Americans (especially the slaughter of the Pequot).

As a fan of both religion and history, I geeked out on this book. I have studied these people before and I laughed during several of Vowell’s pokes at these often-funny people. For example, I studied Roger Williams during a course on Religion in America and I remembered his eccentric and libertarian views on religion and the state. I giggled when Vowell wrote, “John Cotton arrives in 1633 just in time to help Massachusetts Bay board up its theological windows. Hurricane Roger is coming” (pg. 112). I chucked again when Vowell again talked about Williams’ desire to allow all forms of religious worship while at the same time having disdain for their views. Vowell said, “Not that Williams will be hosting any interfaith prayer breakfasts”? (pg. 136). It made me laugh because I am a religion geek.

I believe one of Vowell’s many talents is connecting these historical events of long ago to both modern pop culture and to me personally. It was funny when she talked about how she was originally educated about the Puritans and Pilgrims from the Brady Bunch. Vowell connected to me personally by talking about how the circumstances leading up to the Pequot War was like the frustration and disgust that drives skateboarders to focus (intentionally break in half) their skateboards after missing a trick. Even my disdain for the murderous and bigoted former United States President Andrew Jackson was shared by Vowell’s sister (and undoubtedly by Vowell herself) when they noticed a plaque at the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground that was dedicated by said President. Vowell’s sister said, “Figures, one asshole [Jackson] honoring another [Uncas, a Mohegan sachem who sided with the English during the slaughter of the Pequot at the Mystic Fort and later against the Narragansett tribe]” (pg. 201).

I only have one small criticism of this book. Vowell does not cite her sources during the text of the book, opting instead to create a short list of primary sources at the end. While this may be a small deal to most readers, geeks like me see it as a big deal because I am unable to pull out which source Vowell used for her claims. However, since she wrote the book for geeks like me, I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt because I know the religious information is dead on accurate.

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