Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

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.


Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

October 6, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell

Published October 7, 2008

Riverhead Books

254 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48999-0

Reviewed October 5, 2008

Sarah Vowell is the sort of person you desperately wish taught your high school American history class: smarter than anyone else in the room, a quirky sense of humor, full of random trivia and a genuine enthusiasm for her topic. Her 2005 effort “Assassination Vacation” may be one of the best books of this decade, looking at the macabre side of our executive branch with the voice of a skeptical fangirl.

Now, with her latest title “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell has graduated from being the ideal high school teacher to the ideal college professor. It’s a more professional work than her earlier titles, more akin to an academic essay than a road trip diary, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best recent books on pre-Founding Fathers America.

The “wordy shipmates” in question are the Puritans, most particularly a section which set sail from England in 1630 to settle in what would eventually become Boston. Vowell looks beyond the stereotype, viewing them as an optimistic, highly literate people who gave America more than a reputation for sexual repression. Their desire to write and express thought would give precedent for the First Amendment, and their leader John Winthrop would advocate “a city upon a hill” and lay the groundwork for America’s centuries of self-importance.

Winthrop, the political head of the settlement, is one of the main characters Vowell plays along with: he is a compassionate authoritarian who ordered a man’s ears cut off, but postponed his exile until the harsh winter ended. He tried to keep his colony independent without agitating the English monarchy, but found himself up against personalities equally as forceful. On one hand was Roger Williams, a rabble-rouser who advocated separation of church and state to protect the church and whom Vowell sees as a perfect talk-show host in modern times. On the other was Anne Hutchinson, who challenged religious order and would have won all debates if she could only shut up for the closing statement.

Vowell’s books have been moving from essay collections to more cohesive history texts, and “The Wordy Shipmates” reflects this shift in style. There are no chapters or major separations between sections, and it focuses chiefly on analyzing documents such as Winthrop’s journals and Williams’ letters. It has the feel of a masters’ thesis, which is not a condemnation – Kurt Vonnegut earned a master’s in anthropology for “Cat’s Cradle” after all – but after the ambling pace of “Assassination Vacation” it’s certainly a shift to see Vowell spend most of her time in the library.

The literary fascination of the Puritans may have rubbed off a little too heavily on Vowell, but a more formal structure isn’t enough to silence her droll tone: she can recall enacting the fires of hell at Bible camp with puppets and flashlights and say how genuinely excited she was about a sitcom depicting the harsh winters Pilgrims had to endure. Fans of “Assassination Vacation” will be pleased to see she continues touring with her sister and niece, dragging them to Pilgrim reenactment villages and a museum neighboring an Indian casino.

And these examples get to the core of what makes Vowell’s writing such a treat: they’re accessible in a way no other history writer is. She weaves mass media into these historical actions, comparing the founding of Massachusetts to a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Winthrop’s feud with his deputy governor to a Nancy Drew mystery. Her analogies aren’t there to distract a reader but draw them in further, doing exactly what a teacher should do: make you understand the argument.

One passage in particular showcases her style, able to make a thesis statement in one sentence and convert it to pop culture in the next: “They personify what would become the fundamental conflict of American life – between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness. At his city-on-a-hill best, Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise.”

It’s passages like that one that reaffirm Vowell’s position as the maven of American history, and that keep “The Wordy Shipmates” an accessible and amusing read. The more formal structure and occasionally thick text may offset fans of “Assassination Vacation,” but Vowell keeps it flowing with her trademark wit and a cast interesting enough to change anyone’s definition of “puritan.”