Saturday, April 23, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Beyond James Mitchner’s book Hawaii, my minimal recall of the history of Pearl Harbor, and my 17-day stay on the island of Molokai in 2009, I didn't really know much about Hawaii. After reading Sarah Vowell’s new book, Unfamiliar Fishes,  I’m not sure I'll ever eat pineapple again (Apparently Mr. Dole was an a-hole, robber baron).

The leading 1800’s Hawaiian historian, Davida Malo, leery of the missionaries’ descent upon Hawaii, wrote of his concerns that "unfamiliar fishes" would soon dominate the islands. He wasn’t wrong. Vowell’s latest and typically unique and clever perspective on history is nevertheless a too familiar story of how religion and greed justify their plunders.  

Vowell parallels the United States’ manifest destiny rape of the Native American culture to that of Hawaii; however, she doesn’t play the Hawaiians as poor victims, but rather participants in their own demise. I liked what one reviewer said, “She [Vowell] has not written a story of good and evil, choosing sides between missionaries and those who ended up losing their land and, in many cases, their lives. This is the story of real people who each had their own reasons for their actions. That doesn't make particular actions right or acceptable but it does allow us knowledge of how events unfolded in a very complex clash of cultures.” 

This line from the book will give you a snapshot of Vowell’s humor  - in this case, re: well-meaning missionaries. "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the X-axis of faith intersects with the Y-axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don't give a damn what you think.'"  Click on Read More Below...

One thing that was a little distracting was all the Hawaiian names, which rolled off Vowell’s tongue easily, but became a little confusing to me - King Kamehameha, Princess Nahi'ena'ena's, Queen Liliuokalani's - I had trouble keeping track of who was who.  The only name I was really sure of was contemporary (yet deceased) Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, of the ubiquitous Somewhere Over the Rainbow song.

If you’ve never had history via Vowell, you really need to give her a spin. However, I’ll warn you that unless you have a high tolerance for weird voices, don’t do the audio version. Vowell is a “whiner” which in the context of her sardonic humor works for me. I could listen to her read the phone book, but imagine a really smart, smart-ass, nasal-voiced 13-year-old (Yes, I know that’s redundant). Below is a video clip of Vowell that will give you an idea of what she's all about.

I wish Sarah Vowell had been my history teacher – well, in a way, I guess she is! If you’ve a taste for history and an interest in the home state of the President of the United States, read Unfamiliar Fishes. Click on the arrow below...

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