K2 -----'s Reviews > Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
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Sep 12, 11

Read in September, 2011

Sarah Vowell has a great sense of dry humor and a health interest in history. If you have heard her on the radio it's difficult not to hear her voice inflections as you read her books.

This book was sent to me by a friend who shares my interest in Hawaiian history who read it and was somewhat disappointed that it focused so much on the many missionaries and less on the royalty of the more ancient Hawaii. I told her that the story of the missionaries WAS the history of Hawaii in many ways. I liked the book but I'd think you'd have to be pretty familiar with the history and interested to keep reading the book. It was somewhat uneven and I agree with other reviewers that the last quarter of the book made my attention stray and needed better editing.

Ms. Vowell did some good research that will be obvious to those who have studied Hawaiian history in other forms. She presents the case that although there is much to say about the missionaries running rough shot over the ancient culture they did bring education and it could be argued they saved the Hawaiian language by creating a written for of it that previously did not exist. Mike Smola is quoted as saying "The Hawaiian people accomplished an absolutely incredible educational feat. They went from having no written language here on the islands to a 75% of all Hawaiians learning to read and write in their native language. By the way, if you factor in the slave population of the South of the US in 1863, the literacy rate was roughly 40%. Western Europe had a literacy rate of about 65%, which means in about forty one years Hawaii became one of the more literate nations on the planet as a percentage of its total population. And that is the greatest accomplishment of these mikanele" (missionaries).

I hadn't realized until reading her book that the first church in Hawaii was built with lava rock from Hawaiian temples. It doesn't surprise me that this shameful fact isn't more widely known.

She also points out this it was at times hard to her to get her head about the history of the islands without injecting her own modern views and feminism as she studied it. This was a good thing to be reminded of, even though I am not a fan of the missionaries who wander about the world trying to instill their ways as superior this is a part of the history of Hawaii that cannot be ignored.

Her details of the intricate feather work and its meaning to the ancient people and the royalty was one of the most interesting parts of the book for me. I wished she had written a bit more about the hula but overall I enjoyed reading it and was grateful my friend's comments didn't discourage me. I have her to thank for the opportunity!
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