Published March 22, 2011
Reviewed May 4, 2011
If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.
Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.
Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.
In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.
However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.
That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”
There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.