Right before I moved to Hawaii, Margaret (a dear friend from graduate school) bought me a book to celebrate my love of reading and my new chapter in Hawaii. After wrapping up the two books (We Were the Mulvaneys and Reading Like a Writer) I had started, I decided to put Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes higher on my list. I was anxious to understand the history of my new home and my position of simultaneous privilege (as a highly educated, middle-class, straight, cis, white woman) and as an intruder in a land that had been taken by force. On the first page, Vowell echoes a sentiment I have felt since my arrival: that I do not belong here.
Unfamiliar Fishes reexamines the history of Hawaii, focusing on the United States’ annexation and Americanization of the islands, further solidifying the U.S. as “an international superpower.” Vowell weaves a fascinating story of tragedy from the arrival of missionaries who seek to convert and tame with their ‘Christ is right’ mentality and the sociocultural implications and aftermath of the United States’ takeover that has always whispered (and sometimes shouted) a ‘white is right’ unwanted intervention over other races. Vowell sums up the book early:
This book tells the story of how that perception [Hawaii and Puerto Rico graciously acceptation take over by the U.S.] came to be, how Americans and their children spend the 78 years between the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1989 Americanizing Hawaii, importing our favorite relation, capitalism, and our second favorite religion, Christianity (p. 6).
- Vowell’s way with words: This was my first Sarah Vowell book and her wit is apparent from the beginning. I felt like I was back in a literature class, listening to upperclassmen I envied for their quickness, their sarcasm, and their brilliance. Vowell’s writing is so fluid, I almost feel like I’m floating while she tells this history of Hawaii. I found myself several times underlining sentence structure and circling word choice because I just like her style.
- Honesty: I felt Vowell’s humility as an intruder with incredible privilege (like myself). When she shares facts that are meant to appeal the reader, you can feel her own distaste and shame for the stories she shares. She even admits in the text that this project challenged her own prejudice and biases. While her tone is witty and snarky at times, she does approach this topic with a great deal of compassion.
- A lot of history. Before you stone me, I know this is a historical look at Hawaii. But Vowell’s reputation as a storyteller and the few instances she gravitates back to the present and her own presence in Hawaii were the strongest parts of the book. Those instances are few and too far in between. However, as someone who was very ignorant of any of Hawaii’s history, I can appreciate the detail and care she took to explain so many events and people in a way that was accessible to a novice like me. With that attention to detail comes the hazard of being dry and losing reader momentum
- Lack of structure. I like structure; actually, I crave it. I admit it. The lack of structure in this book drove me crazy. There aren’t chapters and I think that contributes to my previous issue. I think if there would have been more structure to the overwhelming amount of history, it wouldn’t have seemed as such.
- The End. I felt the end was rushed. There’s even less of of her own personal narration and it felt very reminiscent of a college textbook rather than the mixed genre and style Vowell seemed to be going for in other places throughout the book.