Friday, April 08, 2011

Book Review: "Unfamiliar Fishes"

Sarah Vowell's newest is Unfamiliar Fishes (Riverhead, 2011), in which she continues her practice of combining history, travelogue, and a healthy dose of snark. Here those ingredients are blended well to create a funny, fascinating, and always enjoyable history of Hawaii from the time of the arrival of the first American missionaries in 1820 to the islands' annexation by the United States in 1898.

Vowell recounts her own experiences visiting natural and historical sites in Hawaii, researching in the archives there, meeting and speaking with descendants of early missionaries and native Hawaiians. Her enthusiasm and interest in the subject are contagious, and as usual she's able to find the quirky in everything. It helps that the cast of characters here includes the ambitious and hardy New England missionary families who settled in Hawaii to convert the islanders, their commercialized descendants who ended up overthrowing the monarchy in a coup, and (most fascinatingly) the Hawaiians themselves.

While the discussions of the machinations which led to the annexation of Hawaii made for great reading, I found myself most drawn to Vowell's focus on the arrival of printing in Hawaii, and the fairly fast acceptance of the written Hawaiian language (developed by the missionaries and promoted by the Hawaiian royal family). She quotes a Hawaiian historian as noting that between 1822 and 1863, the islands went from having no written language to having "seventy-five percent of all Hawaiians learning to read and write" (p. 101).

I like how Vowell's able to mix scholarship and satire, and I am also delighted that she's provided a list of recommended titles for those who want to dig more deeply into Hawaii's past after reading Unfamiliar Fishes. There's certainly much worth digging into.