Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Does anyone know where my motivation and drive have taken off to?  I swear I've lost it somewhere and I don't think it's coming back!  This has been a crazy school year and I'm eager to get the year wrapped up.  Somehow I need to make my work burn out not translate to my blog, because I'm still reading all the time, but just can't muster up energy for anything outside of the basics.  Time to get with it!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all."

Review:  I'm going through some major Hawaii withdrawals since my mother moved back to the mainland, so I was eager to pick up a book that would put me  back into Hawaii and its issues.  Hawaiian issues and tension surrounding statehood was something I was pretty unfamiliar with until I spent a chunk of time there.  How does an island paradise retain its cultural integrity while welcoming outsiders?  Does it have any choice?  In Vowell's book, there is an interesting overview of Hawaii's colonizing history.  Everyone from missionaries to militarys found Hawaii to be the perfect, fruitful field.  The opportunities in the island were too many to pass up, and the location in the Pacific made it an ideal home base for a variety of groups.  It quickly becomes obvious that as with most colonization, this was about money and power.

One thing I liked about Vowell's history-heavy narration of the development of modern-day Hawaii was her personal and sometimes snarky modern perspective behind the history of the islands.  It's not as though these tensions are foreign to the people of Hawaii, at least from my experience.  In the few years that my mother lived in Hawaii, we had many conversations--from day one--about the love and hate, give and take relationship that native Hawaiians have with outsiders and tourists.  There is money to be gained from Hawaii's exploitation, and yet there is sorrow each time another step is lost in its preservation.  

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed the reading experience I had with Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes.  Having read Jamaica Kincaid's enlightening book A Small Place (on the beaches of Hawaii, ironically enough), I began to realize how complex the issues are that surround the consumption of these beautiful places.  Told from a more historical perspective, Unfamiliar Fishes is a great read and an approachable way to learn more about the complicated history of our 50th state.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.


  1. Interesting--I've seen other reviews of this book that have been less than positive. Do you think this would be a good book to read before traveling to Hawaii?

  2. I've had hit and miss luck with Vowell (loved The Partly Cloudy Patriot, didn't love Assassination Vacation), but this is one I'd like to try. Thanks for a great review!

  3. I've discovered that I love Vowell's books on audio - she reads them, and she performs her own material so well. I was iffy about this one, since I've never been dying to learn about Hawaii's history, but maybe this is a good one to check out.