Saturday, April 30, 2011

Put A Buckle On It

Just finished Sarah Vowell's tight little book about the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It took me awhile. I know she'd hate my saying so, but Puritans are a bit of a tough slog, even in Ms. Vowell's winning snarky pluck.

She has obvious and deep affection for her subjects, maddening and flawed though they so clearly were. She is able to take the foundational myth of the American character and find new and unexpected truth inside of it where people seldom look or think to look. There is the sagacity of Winthrop and the rather stunning egalitarianism of Williams and the charmingly iconoclastic Hutchinson. There are the strange and shifting rivalries between the local Native tribes and the almost casual barbarity of the colonists when they are roused to revenge.

In other words, it has all the ingredients of a ripping yarn and in Vowell's hands, it is also humane and funny and ironical. I can't say anything against it, save what I've already said and that sort of pains me to say: It is simply not an easy thing to get interested in the Puritans. They repel interest and affection like emotional Gore-Tex. No matter how internecine their struggles, no matter how learned their words, no matter how actually and truly historic their actions, they just absorb whatever excitement you can throw at them and return a certain dry dreariness to you, like a mummy's cough.

Which is a shame. And is my fault. Because no one could have managed to tell their story in so short a book in so charming a way.

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