Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
Published March 2012 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my audiobook copy purchased at my local library sale

Publisher's Summary:
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Sarah Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathens, to the coup d'├ętat led by the missionaries' sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, if often appalling or tragic, characters. Whalers who fire cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their god-given right to whores; an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband; sugar barons, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark wry insights and reporting, Vowell sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.

My Thoughts:
If you've never read history as explored by Sarah Vowell, you're missing out on history as seen through the eyes of someone who presents a thoroughly researched exploration of the facts with a sense of humor and irony.
“For Americans, Acts 16:9 is the high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses--an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange. Our greatest goodness and our worst impulses come out of this missionary zeal, contributing to our overbearing (yet not entirely unwarranted) sense of our country as an inherently helpful force in the world. And, as with the apostle Paul, the notion that strangers want our help is sometimes a delusion.” 
I listened to this one which might have been a fine choice if I hadn't been driving. It's really hard to absorb all the information Vowell packs into a book while trying to avoid construction cones and people who are more focused on their telephone conversation than on their driving. It's also hard to focus when there is not a unifying theme (other than the obvious, Hawaii) and when the author has a tendency to go off track. Fortunately, Vowell also packs her books with so many "hey, listen to this" moments that there are bound to be things that stick even in those circumstances.

For example, did you know that the reason the Hawaiian flag includes the Union Jack is because once upon a time a Royal Navy captain brokered a deal with Hawaiian king Kamehameha to make Hawaii a British protectorate. Which, apparently, the British government never acknowledged. Says Vowell,
"That's how stuck up the British were. Whole archipelagoes were handed to them and they were too busy ruining continents to notice."
Vowell makes no bones about not being a fan organized religion and those missionaries take a hit in her version of things, to be sure. More than the missionaries themselves, she takes aim at the organization who shipped these people to a land they had no concept of to save them from themselves against their wills. Vowell also pulls no punches when talking about the Hawaiian royals, the American politicians, and the sailers on the whaling ships that raised hell in the Hawaiian ports during the height of the whaling industry.

I would have liked a more focused work but any time you get Vowell narrating her own work, with guest stars reading from various cited works, it's going to be a fun "read." After all, what other historian would both start and end their book using plate lunches as a symbol for the complicated, mixed history of Hawaii?

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