Two books written on the history and people of New England, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates and Elyssa East’s Dogtown, bear comparison in approach and style. Both Vowell and East conducted extensive research on their chosen subjects. Both authors write from their own first-person perspective and include themselves as characters, and both use their own unique voices as writers to add nuance to the narrative. Where their approaches diverge is most notable in the methods they choose to interject themselves into their stories.
Vowell’s subjects, John Winthrop and his Puritan compatriots, are a bunch I’d read about in textbooks, but with whom I’d felt no connection. The settlers of colonial America are often projected as stuffy and flat in history books, and Vowell takes it upon herself to try to flesh these wooden characters into something relatable to the modern reader. To this end, she tends to focus on people instead of events, eschewing a linear timeline for a more meandering one, at times sacrificing the continuity of the narrative as a result. Her method is to offer commentary and anecdotes to liken the trials and tribulations of these founding leaders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to something the reader can personally conceptualize. Her results are mixed.
Where Vowell succeeds is in her portraits of Winthrop and other characters for which she seems to have affection. While she remains aware of the rigidity of their stentorian way of life, she finds the humanity in characters such as Winthrop; she pays particular homage to his sense of justice and compassion as he banishes Philips Radcliffe, but allows him to linger in the town until the harsh winter has passed (Vowell 78). She also offers an insightful vindication of the devout and misunderstood Roger Williams:
Williams’s greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing more than harmony and groupthink. He cares more about truth than popularity or respect or personal safety. And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric…applications of the Ten Commandments, his quest also leads him to some equally eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination and religious liberty…I find him hard to like, but easy to love. (127)
In this one passage she characterizes Williams masterfully, demonstrating her skill in deconstructing his character and accurately capturing the pith of his philosophy. It is this ability to crystallize that makes her commentary strong, and it manifests also in her analysis of the Pequot War. This section stands also as a high mark; her description of the convoluted events and players in a war involving the settlers, the Pequot and their rivals the Mohegans and Narragansett, plays out with the intrigue of a war drama.
There are instances, however, even in her strongest passages, in which her commentary interrupts the narrative awkwardly. Comparing the buildup to the violent and reprehensible Pequot War to a skateboarder breaking his board in a tantrum (Vowell 172), or likening the hallowed Algonquin term Manitou to the perfection of Steve Kerr hitting a buzzer shot in a professional basketball game (162), are both weak analogical and narrative devices. Vowell further missteps by interjecting a personal anecdote about vacation Bible school amidst a passage concerning the Puritan’s theological tendency to question the divine right of kings (118) as well as inserting a childhood experience at a Pequot museum while detailing the Pequot War (197). These intrusions tend to be far more jarring than illuminating, and though the aim appears to be helping the reader make a personal connection to the material, I believe that it falls short of its goal.
Elyssa East’s role in Dogtown is quite different. Not merely a historian, East is a pilgrim herself, on her own journey into the heart and soul of Dogtown, Massachusetts, a long deserted piece of nature that has enchanted her and many others – the from locals and visitors to painters and poets. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Marsden Hartley, the artist whose otherworldly paintings of Dogtown have made his name synonymous with the cloistered patch of wilderness, and it’s East’s connection to these that bade her explore. She observes that “these images of rocks and earth thrive with profoundly felt distillations of energy…so strange as to seem unreal…exist[ing] beyond the ‘borders of the known world'” (3). Immediately, East’s journey into this unknown and beguiling land becomes crucial, and despite the potency of the other narrative lines – the brutal 1984 murder of Anne Natti interspersed with pre-1800’s New England history – her story remains the most vibrant.
East’s experience with the people and history of Dogtown is intimate. Her first sojourn into the woods is met with a frustrating warning for her safety by a local, but ultimately leaves her shaken as she is nearly lost in the haunting forest (32). On her second trip, she must endure the heartbreak of a painful discovery: of one of Hartley’s notable subjects, a rock formation called Whale’s Jaw, had since broken and no longer resembled it’s painted form. Her sense of betrayal is palpable (44).
Her repeated encounters with the natives coupled with her own experience begin to paint a picture of Dogtown she hadn’t expected. The murder of Anne Natti, though two decades before, left its mark on the entire region. East notes, “There is something especially disturbing about a murder in a natural setting. It shatters our illusion that nature is our protector, a force that inspires goodness” (155). As this chilling aura permeates, she begins to question what she really came looking for. Then, a particularly harrowing sight – that of a horde of foreign birds swarming a tree – breaks her of her reverie completely, and she realizes “that I was doing nothing but spending my time being swept away by curious folklore and running around some peculiar woods turned all the more bizarre by a combination of man’s manipulation and neglect” (221). Her final realization that she cannot recapture that youthful energy in Dogtown which had seemed to inspire Hartley is saddening, and a stark contrast from the optimism that marked the book’s introduction. But the journey here is the true story, and while it may not have ended quite as the author had desired, it remains a rich and captivating tale, personal and engaging.
East’s presence in her tale stands in such contrast to Vowell’s because she truly belongs there. Dogtown has its own history, but seeing it through East’s eyes enriches the reader’s experience; Vowell’s presence is not so necessary to our understanding of the Puritans’ world. Vowell is the passive observer, East the dynamic explorer. While Vowell is a stowaway with her shipmates, East is at the helm, the centerpiece and captain, the most important character, without whom there is no story.
East, Elyssa. Dogtown. New York: Free Press, 2009.
Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. New York: Riverbend, 2008.