Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

I would gladly sacrifice certain non-essential parts of my anatomy in order to write as well as Sarah Vowell. “Gladly” is perhaps an overstatement, but if blood sacrifice did indeed have the power of conferring literary talent, I’d seriously consider which areas of my flesh I could do without.

Vowell’s 2011 book on Hawaiian history combines extensive research with Vowell’s characteristic snark. While some find her wit self-indulgent, I find her voice authentic and engaging. When writing about renowned Hawaiians such as historian and poet David Malo and the ill-fated Queen Liliuokalani, her tone is properly reverent; her sarcasm kicks in when addressing the outlandish beliefs and behavior of the New England missionaries who came the “save” the islands in the early 19th century. I especially enjoyed the analogy she used to describe the conflict between the missionaries and shore-leaving whalers who came in their wake: “Image if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Values Voter Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously — for forty years.”

Much like James Michener did in his epic novel, Vowell shows too much admiration for the pluck and erudition of the missionaries. (She shows an identical soft-spot for the Massachusetts Bay colonists in an earlier book of hers.) She is less forgiving in retelling the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, engineered largely by missionary descendants. In Vowell’s estimation, the 1896 annexation of Hawaii by America was criminally outrageous; only the most naive proponents of American imperialism could disagree.

At 230 paperback pages, “Unfamiliar Fishes” is hardly an exhaustive history, but for a book that’s more entertaining than educational it still provides valuable insight into this land, its people, and the haoles who stole it from them. It probably shouldn’t be the last book you read about Hawaii, but it definitely serves well as a first.

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