Review

Unfamiliar Fishes

by Sarah Vowell

In 1820, a group of Christian missionaries arrived in the Sandwich Islands, better known as Hawaii, hoping to convert the native population, a monarchy centered on rich indigenous traditions and beliefs, to their brand of monotheism. In 1959, the island archipelago become the 50th of the United States of America; its ethnic Hawaiian population was far less than half, its language and religion minorities as well. What were the events and ideas that led to the Hawaiian annexation, and what were some of the cultural and political consequences? With wit, sass and entertaining insight, Sarah Vowell explores the modern history of Hawaii and looks to answer these questions in UNFAMILIAR FISHES.

The Protestant missionaries who first arrived in Hawaii in the early decades of the 19th century were full of hope, enchanted by their new surroundings and inspired by the tales of explorer James Cook. The haoles, or foreigners, did make some inroads bringing Christianity and American cultural ideas to the islands, but of course, much of the traditional way of life began to erode. Taboos were challenged, churches were built, and monarchs were questioned. The Hawaiian language was now a written one, and the Hawaiians became literate as the missionaries educated them in Protestant schools (some of which are still around today).

And, as the Americans introduced new ideas, they moved from religious players to politicians, and eventually gained control of the Hawaiian government, one whose recent restructuring they had engineered. Finally, the last Hawaiian queen was overthrown by white revolutionaries in 1893, which opened the door for eventual annexation --- an idea dismissed by Grover Cleveland but embraced by William McKinley during his presidency.

While it does present the above history, UNFAMILIAR FISHES is not exactly a history book. Vowell successfully mixes history with her own astute observations, drawing on both research and interviews she conducted on the islands. She also talked to descendants of the missionaries of the royal family. This is mostly a thought-provoking examination of one land's path to statehood and a Pacific Island culture's road to Westernization, which leads to many compelling and intriguing ideas about American history in general and the formation of American identity. For Vowell, Hawaii comes to stand for a fundamentally American worldview, where Manifest Destiny, religious zealotry, capitalism and democracy collide and alter everything they encounter.

The Hawaii Vowell describes is both lushly hedonistic and socially conservative, the clash of values and beliefs she presents is fascinating and the outcomes bittersweet. Her tale is full of paradoxes (the famous song "Aloha Oe" --- still used to represent Hawaii in song, including during Hawaiian-born Barack Obama's inauguration --- was written by Queen Lili'uokalani, the last royal ruler of the nation after she was ousted from the throne). But as Vowell's nephew Owen, her sometimes-sidekick in Hawaiian exploration, says, "If I could marry Hawaii, I would do it immediately." In Vowell's nimble hands, it's easy to see what she loves about Hawaii. UNFAMILIAR FISHES is a charming and sophisticated ode to this complicated paradise.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 28, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes
by Sarah Vowell

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2012
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 159448564X
  • ISBN-13: 9781594485640