From the bestselling author of "The Wordy Shipmates" comes an examination of Hawaii's emblematic and exceptional history, retracing the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England.
Unfortunately, this didn't work for me quite as well as some of her previous books. For one thing, she tends to jump around in time a little bit, interspersing her discussion of history with mentions of her present-day researches or allusions to things that happened decades after the time period she's concentrating on. (In particular she talks quite a bit about the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani well before the point where said queen actually shows up in the chronology.) In her books about mainland US history, I had no problem with that kind of structure, even found it charming and insightful, but when dealing with a corner of history about which I knew practically nothing going in, it's a little disorienting. Wait, what date are we up to here?, I kept stopping to ask myself. And how is Liliuokalani related to these people I've been reading about again? It didn't help matters any that I also had trouble keeping track of many of the other people involved. I'd like to be able to blame that on the long and often very similar-sounding Hawaiian names, but the truth is, I couldn't keep the missionaries straight, either. And while I found the details of native Hawaiian culture and government fascinating, those were never really delved into in nearly as much depth as I would have liked. Honestly, I'd have preferred to read a lot more about the Hawaiians and a lot less about the missionaries. (I must admit, I've never been particularly fond of missionaries.)
I don't want to be too negative, though, because it's really not a bad book. The subject matter genuinely is interesting, even if it only whetted my appetite on certain topics. And I'm particularly glad to have read it now, since I'm planning a trip to Hawaii later this year, and it's nice to have relieved at least some of my profound ignorance about the place before visiting. In particular, the somewhat shocking story of how Hawaii came to be annexed by the US deserves to be better remembered. Also, Vowell can be quite witty and insightful, and there are certainly moments when she displays those qualities here. And, as always, I very much appreciate her nuanced approach to her subject matter, her ability to see everyone's point of view, as displayed, for instance, in the way she expresses genuine admiration for the missionaries' bravery, dedication and sense of community, while also acknowledging their ingrained racism and their disturbing role in the history of American imperialism.
She presents her research in the form of a narrative, intertwining quotes from direct sources with her own observations made during her journeys to the various local sites on the islands. She does so with a fresh, tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the damage Americans have done to the native culture without pontificating too much. The reader gets a clear picture of what life was like before the missionaries ever set foot on the islands, and a sense of sadness at all that has been lost.
The problem, however, is the fact that those readers who do not have a detailed understanding of Hawaii's history may struggle with some of what the author is discussing. Unfamiliar Fishes works best as a companion piece to a greater, more in-depth history. Without this prior familiarity and depth of understanding, some of the cultural differences mentioned by Ms. Vowell may unfavorably bias the reader against the message she is actually trying to share. For example, the brief discussion of sister/brother marriages may so appall the reader that the message about its cultural significance is completely lost.
The other problem is the narration itself. While having the actors become a unique voice for the various real-life figures quoted in the book lends credence to the narration and gives it a true documentary-type feel, the author as the primary narrator is not a voice that lends itself well to easy listening. Her self-deprecating manner never lets up, making almost every sentence read sound unintentionally sarcastic, which again diminishes the message she is trying to make. Her voice is rather high-pitched, whiny and not necessarily soothing to the ear. The story she is telling is fascinating enough to hold any listener's attention, but there are times where Ms. Vowell's voice is a bit unnerving and detrimental to the material.
Beautifully told, Unfamiliar Fishes is well worth reading to get a better insight into Hawaii's struggle for autonomy against a country that was flexing its expansionary claws. Like most of history and one culture overpowering another, it is a tragic story that leaves the reader with a better understanding of and appreciation for the Hawaiian culture. Unfortunately, it is a story that is best read and not listened to via audio.
Why I picked it up: I heard Vowell read selections from this work a year ago, and was eager for more. I love the way she pulls people out of history's shadows and makes past events real, present, and personal.
Why I finished it: I kept listening for my favorite line from the reading last year, when Vowell has built up her contempt for the oligarchs that conspired to overthrow island government and get it annexed by the U.S., then suddenly remembers, "I hate monarchy." But the line wasn't in the book, and I felt curiously let down.
I'd give it to: Die hard fans only. This is no "Assassination Vacation."
Before I review this, I should spend a couple paragraphs on Hawaii history in the 19th century. The century saw a complete overturning of the make-up of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1800 the newly discovered islands held a large population wholly within a rigidly hierarchical Kapu religious and cultural structure, with a powerful king at the top. In 1900 Hawaii was an American territory, recently annexed and completely controlled, economically, by American interests. The Hawaiians were a minority population, devastated by disease. Their kingdom had ended, and their culture and religion was no longer of any official significance. The ethnographic make-up of the islands now included American haole and large populations of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and other ethnic groups. The Philippines would come later.
In the interval, American Christian missionaries arrived and converted a King to Christianity, and few other key individuals. They also created a Hawaiian alphabet, and saw the Islands obtain 70% literacy in mid-century, about the highest in the world at that time. Then, a strange thing happened, the people who took over the country, American in all but citizenship, almost all had one thing in common – they were the sons of the original missionaries.
It is unfortunate that Hawaiian history isn’t quite this simple because it makes Sarah Vowells’ efforts in Unfamiliar Fishes rather complicated. Unfamiliar Fishes is her attempt to look into this century and try to understand what happened. She tried to keep it light and entertaining, but at the same time made a serious effort to find some truth, to read between the lines and really try to see and present the motivations involved. I really appreciate her efforts and her insight and recommend the book to anyone interested in Hawaiian history. However, one problem here is that Hawaiian history is complicated enough that you really need a simplified historical summary before you can approach the history at any depth. You’ll need to find that summary elsewhere.
I’ve read a lot about Sarah Vowell and her writing, but until I sat down with Unfamiliar Fishes, she was an unknown quantity in my reading life. Some words I’ve heard used to describe her books are: funny, fascinating, engaging and witty; and after reading this book I would have to agree with all of these adjectives. Vowell gets right to the heart of her material but isn’t afraid to follow the occasional non-sequitur to its very end. She crafts history into a story that even those who are apathetic on the topic can savor and enjoy, and she has a sense of humor that kept me giggling along with her throughout. Though I didn’t know much about Hawaii before reading this book, I now feel that I could talk intelligently about the subject, as well as regale my family over dinner with the Hawaiian importance of belly buttons.
It was surprising to learn that before the missionaries arrived, the islands had no written language, and it was the missionaries who created the first Hawaiian alphabet (12 letters instead of 24, if you are curious). They also made education one of the premiere focuses of the island, first getting the king’s approval and teaching him. It would have been great if everything the missionaries ended up doing in Hawaii was that altruistic, because although that contribution was huge, the missionaries were mostly the harbingers of a change that many Hawaiians were not comfortable with. They wanted to change the fundamentals of Hawaiian religion, politics, land ownership and marriage laws. They brought disease that ravaged the population, and they started many territorial wars with the sailors that used the islands as a stopover on their whaling trips. With one hand they blessed and with the other they snatched away, creating a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion in the native population. As years went by and the missionaries became more at home on the Islands, their priorities began to change from ideas of benevolence to ideas of ownership.
But Vowell doesn’t only share the history of the American missionaries on the island, she really digs deep and shares the history of Hawaii from its earliest origins. She speaks of the Hawaiian reverence of nature and how the kings and queens also revere their people and their responsibility to them. She shares the strange customs of royal incest that Hawaiians believe produce the most powerful of monarchs, and shows how these hardworking and compassionate people ended up at the mercy of a country that didn’t understand them or their way of life. She gives us many examples of a people who are still bitter over the usurping of their home into the jaws of a country that seems to want to swallow other territories whole, never realizing or appreciating the differences of other lands. Vowell writes at length about the seizure of the Hawaiian queen and tells her readers just how her power was stripped from her, leaving the islands at the mercy of foreigners that wanted nothing more than to add them to a collection of other militarily advantageous lands.
Part of the reason this book appealed to me, despite my tepid regard for full-on historical reads, is the fact that Vowell stands in the unique position of making her book historically accurate while also seeking to entertain her readers. I can’t imagine wanting to read about these subjects had they been penned by another author. Vowell is never dry nor repetitive, and the sense of wonder that she feels while exploring these events comes across clearly as she shares them with her reader. She also has a unique gift for being sympathetic to all parties in the drama and never resorts to stereotyping or name calling within her reflections. It’s obvious that some parties bear more responsibility for the problem than others, but Vowell lets her readers decide just how much and how to feel about all the players in this event. It’s to her credit that she takes on all sides of this quibble equally and doesn’t resort to mudslinging at any point. Her all-encompassing need to get the facts straight provided an unbiased reflection of the Hawaii/ American conflict.
Unfamiliar Fishes was a very interesting read, made more enticing because it wasn’t vague nor taxing. Vowell has a way of getting to the kernel of her material and expanding her study in a way that’s not only instructive but invigorating. It’s history yes, but written in a sometimes playful and sometimes grave way. If, like me, you haven’t had the experience of losing yourself in Vowell’s writing, I would recommend it heartily. If you’ve read previous books by this author then you know what I’m talking about. I’m eager to continue my history lessons under Vowell’s tutelage and will probably grab The Wordy Shipmates from my stack very soon. An intriguing and engrossing read, written with candor and intelligence. Recommended.
Vowell can be pretty funny without putting down the events or people she is talking about. And I like that fact that I feel like she is telling me a story (a true story) and not like I am reading a long list of people, dates, and events. I guess for me it makes the people and events a little more real.
Like The Wordy Shipmates, I miss Vowell's ability to mix her own travels and reflections with the history of her subject matter. Yes, there are the occasional mentions of her nephew Owen (I loved his statement that he would marry Hawaii if he could), but they're far too few. Still, if you enjoy Vowell's other books, you'll most likely enjoy this one.
If you'd like to know more about a major turning point in the United States' history, this is an excellent book. I grew up taking Hawaii's statehood for granted. This will give you an entirely different perspective on it.
The themes that it covered--evangelism, imperialism, liberty and self-determination--are important ones even today more than a hundred years after Hawaii became a US territory and fifty years after she became a state.
She goes with me in the car and Sarah is the argument of authors reading their own work. If you don't like her voice try listening to your own...
If you think the Irony is heavy handed try to imagine Owen her nephew or Stephen Hawking reading it?
Lot's you can judge about the book by it's cover, the tilt-shift focus on tin preacher action figure might suggest good examples of bad solutions ahead. She pulls taffy out of disbelief and rage (if you're out there, please write about the great Boston molasses flood & 1919 in general). Her amazing sense allows you to move forward after reflection and understand that time is at the wheel of the convenient truth mobile, unless they actually make one and it's already in the hands of a child.
Vowell includes her own experiences as she researches the material. I loved the occasional comments she included from her young nephew, Owen, and his reactions to what he sees. Vowell also makes a lengthy reference to Moby Dick in the book. I happened to be reading that at the same time and so I loved that!
It’s not my favorite book of Vowell’s, but I’m a fan of her work and I’ll read whatever she writes. I love that she makes me laugh and she teaches me so much at the same time. I knew very little about Hawaiian history and this was a great introduction.
It's intentional that her interest in Hawaii coincides with the election of the first U.S. president to have been born in Hawaii. Despite my love for Sarah Vowell, sometimes her politics intrude overly much (and I say this as someone who agrees with her politics) but in this case, I think the connections and context of the Obama presidency are appropriate and thoughtful.
Live and learn.
Basically, I would recommend the book to adult readers, but for the teens in my Library I will keep looking for quality NF material.
In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii.
History can be, and is, strange. I’m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about. Hawaii is a state I don’t know much about. I’ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I’m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what’s there.
This isn’t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won’t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I’m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.