Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

8857310Sarah Vowell is the history teacher I wished I’d had in college. Not that I had bad teachers*, but Vowell has the same kind of curiosity about history that I have. She seems to delight in weird stories while still taking time to consider the deeper implications of historical events and ideas. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell looks at the turbulent history of nineteenth century Hawaii. I’d never really been interested in Hawaii before now–I much prefer cold places to hot ones. But learning about Hawaii, the only state in the union that we invaded rather than acquired through money or revolution, provides an interesting perspective on the history of the United States as a whole.

I love the beginning of Unfamiliar Fishes. The book begins with the author sitting under a banyan tree, contemplating her plate lunch. Nothing on her plate is native to Hawaii. Neither is the tree. From that humble (but tasty) beginning, Vowell drifts back to the early 1800s, shortly after Captain Cook was killed by the island’s inhabitants. In the early decades, missionaries headed out for the islands to convert the natives, burn their idols, and remodel the land into their idea of productive and useful. The way Vowell presents it, this collision doesn’t seem as violent as other encounters between missionaries and native populations. It helped, I suppose, that the Hawaiians were in the middle of modernizing their culture and religion. And it also helped that the Hawaiians had a firm grip on their country and that the missionaries were only allowed to settle on the king’s permission.

But the entire story had changed by the end of the century. By the turn of the century, the last queen, Liliʻuokalani, was overthrown by the white population and the native Hawaiian population was in the minority. However, the population might have been wiped out by disease and white people, they managed to hang on to their language and culture thanks to the efforts of Hawaiians who created a written version of their language, documented dances and chants, and saved their relics. As I read the book, I started to wonder if the Hawaiians invented anthropology.

The other thing that attracts me to Vowell’s writing is she doesn’t relate a history in a linear fashion. Instead, she meanders back and forth, revisiting and expanding themes and concepts. It’s like riding on her shoulder as she does her research. It’s like she built up the text as she read through other books and archival material. It’s almost as if we’re reading her notes. The recursive text is also full of little anecdotes. Anecdotes make history come alive for me by showing me real incidents in the lives of real people. I loved reading about people like Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian who went to missionary school intending to bring Protestantism to the islands, and Lucy Thurston exchanging food with Hawaiians through a porthole in the brig that brought them to Hawaii.

The history of Hawaii is so different from the history of the rest of the country. I knew only the vaguest details before I read this book, mostly gleaned from reruns of Magnum, P.I. It started the same, with missionaries and capitalists arriving as quickly as the Hawaiians would let them. Then there were the diseases that wiped out a significant portion of the Hawaiian population. But somehow, the Hawaiian monarchy managed to keep a hold of their country. But by the end of the century, the lack of heirs to the throne started to take their toll. A few short lived and/or bad kings let whites get the upper hand. Shortly after Lili’oukalani took the throne, the grandsons of missionaries and the sons of sugar farmers took advantage of the unsettled politics to stage coup. Sanford Dole and his cohorts offered up Hawaii on a silver platter to the American government. And America became an imperial nation.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a lively history, a wonderful read. I look forward to the next neglected piece of history that Vowell is going to write about next.

* With one notable exception who liked to tell us about his time in Columbia hanging out with a friend who had drug cartel connections. Good times!


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