by Nona Blyth Cloud
As an antidote to all the preliminary Primary Screaming dominating the news, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s wonderful books, which are a combination of Tours of Historical Sites, Vowell’s Interactions with her Family and Others, and her Musings on History and Historical Figures.
Sarah Vowell is my favorite kind of writer, a Meanderer. She will get you to her point, but the trip there goes through lots of whimsical places. Her Titles and Chapter Headings alone are worth the read – books like The Wordy Shipmates, Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, Assassination Vacation, and Unfamiliar Fishes.
In The Partly Cloudy Patriot, the chapter “God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass,” is about, among several Other Things, her trip to Salem, Massachusetts, which turned the Salem Witch Trials into a Tourist Industry:
“On July 19, 1692, a woman named Sarah Good stood on the gallows and answered the minister making a last-ditch effort to get her to confess to witchcraft. She famously proclaimed, to the reverend and, I’m guessing, the town, “You are a liar; I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Could she have any idea then that, three centuries later, bloodthirsty tourists would sip her life story from a souvenir shot glass? What would she think of the local ice cream parlor going by the name Diary Witch? Or that the high school football team is called the Salem Witches? Or that a cartoonish witch logo adorns the town’s police cars and newspaper?”
Six pages later:
“On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history – and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown – would cough up the pompous same old same old about how if we kids failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you’re one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook’s chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so toast at Hitler’s New Year’s party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.”
From Assassination Vacation, her view of Presidents and Presidential Assassins:
“I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us – us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are?”
Reading Sarah Vowell’s version of recent history is much more entertaining than actually living through that recent history. And since she often travels with her sister Amy and Amy’s son Owen, we get to watch Owen grow up.
In Assassination Vacation, on a trip to research James Garfield, the three of them go to Garfield’s tomb. They “march downstairs to the burial chamber to look at the flag-draped coffin of James Garfield and the one belonging to Lucretia, his wife. Owen peers very closely into every cranny of the room. Frowning, he makes one of his verb-free proclamations, “There no skeletons in the crypt.”
Vowell continues: “Owen is the most Hitchcockian preschooler I ever met. He’s three. He knows maybe 90 words and one of them is “crypt”? Amy says, “Remember, Owen? The skeletons are inside the coffins.”
At a later stage in his development, Owen will end his phone conversations with his aunt: “I love you. Don’t die.”
I too wish Sarah Vowell a long life, and I hope for many more books to come.
Thank you for reading this week’s Word Cloud. Visitors and comments welcome.
SOURCES and Further Reading:
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot © 2002 by Sarah Vowell, Simon & Schuster
- Assassination Vacation © 2006 by Sarah Vowell, Simon & Schuster
- Unfamiliar Fishes © 2011 by Sarah Vowell, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud