Thursday, April 14, 2011
So I was delighted when I learned that noted witticist Sarah Vowell's new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, provides a quick, glib guide to 19th century Hawaiian history. I've always meant to read Vowell, and never have, so Unfamiliar Fishes provided an opportunity to kill two Hawaiian nene geese with one lava rock: learn history, read Vowell. (Also, it mercifully allowed me to abandon my original plan to learn Hawaiian history: Trudge through all 1,140 pgs. of James Michener's Hawaii.)
Beginning with King Kamehameha's unification (read as: conquest) of all the islands in the early 19th century and continuing through the arrival of the first American missionaries in 1820, the book explains how various events, factors, influences, etc. all led up to the US's rather underhanded annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Along the way, we get some fascinating tidbits about whaling, the founding of Punahou School (an elite private high school that happens to be our president's alma mater), a Hawaiian princess conflicted about marrying her brother, and a crazy pseudo-Mormon guy named Walter Murray Gibson who made friends with a Hawaiian king, but was excommunicated from the Mormon church for misappropriating funds.
Vowell is a thorough researcher and a wonderful writer — switching seamlessly between historian, travel writer and humorist. She's certainly the most fun-to-read when she's cracking wise and pointing out contradictions and stupidity. She's no fan of the missionaries and generally let's 'em have it throughout the book. My favorite line, which I judge to be pure genius: "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don’t give a damn what you think.'"
The black-and-white historical sections are still interesting, but lack that Vowell flair. Near the end of the book, as Vowell rushes through the (il)legal maneuverings that led to the annexation, she barely stops to take a breath, much less throw in her signature wit. Here, you learn more than you're entertained — which isn't of itself a bad thing, but it feels more like a college textbook.
So, four stars for Unfamiliar Fishes. I realize now I liked it a lot more, and learned much more, than I thought I did while reading it. Isn't it cool when a book sneaks up on you? If you like Vowell, you won't be disappointed here. And I liked it enough to try some of her other stuff now.
By the way, the title is a reference to a quote by a native Hawaiian and Christian convert named David Malo, who in his old age, became concerned that the old customs were being abandoned and that the Haole (Hawaiian for "outsider", basically) or "unfamiliar fishes" would soon dominate the islands.
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 11:54 AM