Kata's Reviews > Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
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's review
Nov 13, 2011

really liked it
Read in July, 2011

If Sarah Vowell was my aunt, I would want to travel the world with her and have her orate every historical marker and museum we would visit; instead of putting on those nasty headsets they generally give you. But alas, I'm likely older than Ms. Vowell and also not her niece. (Okay! I looked up her age out of curiosity and she is slightly older than me.) I enjoy Sarah on NPR and I enjoy her just as much in written form. Her sarcastic humor and attention to history appeals to me. How many women do you know who are astute historians and comical too? I'm going to disregard the religious content of the book (as I respect each person's own persuasions) and address the historical content alone. I will make an attempt to not be too wordy.

The story begins in New England with the prompt marriages of Bingham and Thurston. A small ship of newlyweds! The honeymooners set sail to Hawaii. Do you think those wives had any idea what they were getting into? LOL Vowell calls the ship a, "vomitorium." Not so romantic as they had hoped. After five months the ship arrives to the sweet beauty of the islands only to be greeted by nearly naked men and women. GASP! The propriety of the savages. But the islanders were far from savages as the women were not allowed to eat pork, bananas or coconuts because it was far too sexual. The English still had their religious work cut out for them.

The death of Captain Cook and Vowell's oration of the royal Hawaiian family's history is compelling. I searched for pictures on the internet of each person she spoke of, putting names to faces. Vowell is not a delicate flower by any means and I appreciate her narration of the most minute details including the gory ones. She details in one section a female with breast cancer and the unsedated amputation of said infected breast. In another section she discusses how the bones of the dead are thee most treasured part of the body to the islanders. Vowell captivates me in these portions. I love the vivid imagery, the accuracy of her story for the time period and her comical one-liners.

Although there were many other topics which were rather interesting. One other part in particular caught my attention was that Hawaii did not have a written language and of course the English set about creating one and then developing literacy on the islands. Vowell's statistics shook me. Within months of creating a language (imagine the difficulty) and producing written publications 75% of the island became proficient in literacy (I don't recall the time period she states). She does note that comparatively in 1863 the U.S. was only 40% and Europe 65% literate. Go Hawaii!

If you do read this novel and listen very closely to her discussion relating to the rampant whale industry at the time, regardless of whether you have read Moby Dick, tell me did or do you ache to pick up the novel and read it (or read it again)? I did.

I visited Hawaii several years ago, stayed in a lovely house alone on the North Shore of Oahu and did not follow the path of the average tourist. After reading this book, when I go back to Oahu I'll do more than surf and explore the terrain, I'll take in some history and silently thank Sarah Vowell for giving me one of the best history lessons since my college education.


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