Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Posted on March 14, 2011

There is nothing simple about the history of Hawai’i.

Quick! Every state that was once a Republic, raise your hand. Oh Hello Vermont and California. Yeah, we know Texas. But does everybody see Hawai’i over there? Okay, now every state that was once a Kingdom, raise your hand. Not so cool are you now Texas? I’m saying that because Hawai’i is still raising her hand. This is the reason that there has never truly been an objective history of what is now the state of Hawai’i.

Every history of the islands that has been written by a haole (for our purposes, foreigner or ‘come here’) starts with Captain Cook setting foot and eventually perishing on the islands. In reality, their history starts at about 300 BCE. It culminated in the deepest and most complex culture in the entire Pacific. If you don’t acknowledge the power of their belief system, go ahead and take a piece of volcanic rock off of the islands. I dare you.

The point is that, in 1778 there was a culture in place that traced its roots back farther than the birth of Jesus. However, the churches out of America and England saw fit to convert the infidels by sending over missionaries. This is where Sarah Vowell steps in, and through ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ gives us one of the most fascinating stories of the modern era.

On the surface we have two completely antagonistic belief systems. On Hawai’i, chiefs were expected to marry their sisters, nudity was the norm and idols were worshipped. Blasphemy.

The ensuing battle took many forms. ‘Model’ Hawai’ians were brought back to the States and England. Whaling ships fired on missions when they were denied whores. Brothers and sisters no longer married.

What we ended up with, for a brief period, was marriage of both worlds. We had a Kingdom of elected Kings and Queens of native Hawai’ian birth that used a system uniquely invented, and staffed by (the first Justice was a Lawyer who just happened to stop by the island and was offered the job) haoles.

The Kingdom eventually fell and was replaced by the, ultimately illegal, Republic. Paradoxically, the Kingdom was better for the haoles than the Republic they created.

Sarah Vowell does not pull any punches. Americans are portrayed as heading up the orgy of imperialism and the natives are shown to complain about injustices which they carried out themselves. She also gives us one of the most sympathetic portraits of Queen Lili’uokulani I have read. All this is interspersed with wonderful anecdotes and snark.

You’ll find a brushstroke of Hawai’ian history in ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’. But more importantly, you’ll find a deep story about the clash of two cultures, told by someone who knows her stuff.

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