jess's Reviews > Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
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Jun 02, 11

bookshelves: 2011, audiobook-d
Read in April, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell's take on the history of Hawaii. Vowell recounts the unraveling of the warrior kings, the arrival of the first missionaries, and all the way up to the end of the Hawaiian nation when Queen Liliuokalani was removed from her throne, the provisional government was established and Sanford Dole became president of the Republic of Hawaii. Then the country was annexed by the US. It is supposed to be the story of how we imported "our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second-favorite religion, Christianity."


This passage really stuck with me, and carried me through the book. The idea of Hawaii as a sort of canary in the coal mine of American imperialism and conquest drew me through the pages. I wanted point, evidence, counterpoint to support this narrative. This quote is from the second page.

I started looking into Hawaii's bit part in the epic of American global domination. I came across a political cartoon on the cover of Harper's Weekly from August 27, 1898. Above the caption, "Uncle Sam's New Class in the Art of Self-Government," Uncle Sam poses as a schoolmaster in a classroom festooned with a world map in which little American flags are planted on the barely visible island dots of Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba & the Philippines. A barefoot, frowning boy wearing a dunce cap labeled "Aguinaldo" represents the Filipino revolutionary who began the Spanish-American War as an American ally against Spain; but after Spain surrendered and handed over the Phillipines to the United States, Aguinaldo led the guerilla war against his new American colonizers. Uncle Sam is trying to break up a fight between two other barefoot boys, one wearing a satchel marked "Cuban Ex-Patriot" and the other a belt marked "Guerilla" meant to symbolize the unruly discontentment of Cuban freedom fighers also dismayed that their American allies in the fight against Spain for Cuba libre had just become their new colonial overlord. Meanwhile, off to the side, two good little girls, their headdresses identifying them as "Hawaii" and "Porto Rico," have their noses in the books they are quietly reading. Presumably because well-behaved Hawaii & Puerto Rico have politely and graciously accepted the blessings of annexation without any back talk.


See? That's good. But the book gets caught up in churchy Puritans and fails in what I wanted/expected.

There are several references to Barack Obama, America's first Plate Lunch President. It seems pretty obvious that Obama is an important factor in both the writing and the reading of this book, but I'll say it anyway. He's the cultural touchstone that lends this book relevancy.

Sarah Vowell is a polarizing author and you usually love her or hate her. Generally I appreciate her work. But this book fell short on several things I love about her writing. Despite her meticulous research and humor, something is missing. Vowell has a nuanced understanding of the political, cultural, economic, religious and contradictory events of Hawaiian history, but there is no counterpoint to the elimination of the culture & ethnicity of the islands. There is no silver lining. What good came from this? Where is the justifiable outrage? Instead, you get a sort of grumbling, complacent indignation. Even the trademark snarky humor serves to turn atrocities into punch lines instead of skewering the perpetrators. The white people who handed over the nation to the US may have been morally bankrupt and motivated by greed, but they were not, in the strictest sense, doing anything illegal. They didn't break the law, Sarah Vowell tells us, because they wrote the law themselves. And maybe that's just how it had to go, after the Hawaiians gave up taro cultivation, the monarchy and the hula. They got a written language. Besides, the Puritans had lived there for generations, so they were Hawaiian too.

That was so totally not the conclusion I thought we were going to come to.

Ultimately, this book could have been a lot of things, but it just wasn't. Above all, I read Sarah Vowell for fun in my free time, as nerdy as that sounds, and this book most certainly was not fun to read.
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