Unfamiliar Fishes

  • Sarah Vowell
  • Riverhead
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • April 15, 2011

Hawaii’s history told through the eyes of a quirky commentator.

Reviewed by Robert Knight

Students of history will learn something from this attempt to tell how Hawaii lost its constitutional monarchy and became a political component of the United States. But Sarah Vowell has reduced learning to a side-effect.

She flits from 1820, when the first New England missionaries invaded the islands and made it possible for their descendants to take over, to 1898, when Hawaii was annexed by the United States. From this flit through Hawaii’s history, we learn several things: that murder occurred throughout 19th-century Hawaii; that marriage between caste-ridden Polynesians (whose royals practiced incest) and democratic neo-Puritans ended as a disaster for the Hawaiians; and that diseases, carried by missionaries, merchants and sailors, caused another kind of mass murder.

Before she gets to the actual history, Vowell makes a point of telling us that she was born part Cherokee and that her ancestors were marched at gunpoint along the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to “Indian Territory” in her native Oklahoma. Her point is that “the Cherokees were Christianized and educated by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” the same bunch that descended on Hawaii.

A quarter-century before the missionaries landed there, the first ruler of the whole archipelago, Kamehameha I, had pledged that his people “unanimously acknowledged themselves subject to the British crown,” according to Vowell’s quote from the sea-faring journals of Captain George Vancouver. “There is no record that the British government ever acknowledged receipt of the gift of Hawaii,” she adds. “That’s how stuck-up the British were — whole archipelagos were handed to them and they were too busy ruining continents to notice.”

The U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898, Vowell writes, came after the “four-month orgy of imperialism” of the Spanish-American War that included the acquisition of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam. The Americans wanted “a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park their fleet of battleships.”

Then she takes us to the European beginnings of Hawaiian history. Captain James Cook first landed on the island of Hawaii (the “Big Island”), where he would be killed. Vancouver, one of Cook’s midshipmen, returned later.

When the first missionaries landed, Hawaiians paddled out to greet them with tropical fruits. The Americans were touched by the reception, but they were scandalized by a hula that praised the genitalia of Hawaii’s royalty. “In the democratic republic where I live,” Vowell notes, “any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn’t going to see his name of a ballot again.” The Americans began changing the society that Kamehameha had unified “by driving hundreds of his opponents off a cliff.”

In the course of Vowell’s history we meet Henry Obookiah, “who left Hawaii for Connecticut, where he attended Yale and met the men who created the foreign missions board.” But Obookiah died in America before he could be a missionary to his own people. Later we meet Lucy Thurston, who survived a shipboard childbirth while seasick; she would go on to endure a mastectomy without anesthetic. Another of the book’s characters, Princess Nahi’ena’ena, “spent her short conflicted life lurching back and forth between the old ways and those of the New Englanders, sometimes taking refuge in the Church, sometimes in her brother’s arms.” Liquor became her final refuge.

How proud the missionaries were of Lahainaluna School, founded in 1831 on Maui, which claims to be the first school west of the Rockies. (Among its alumni is one Barack Obama.) But whatever ideals they brought got buried beneath the greed of their descendants.

In Honolulu in 1887, a lawyer, Lorrin Thurston, and his friend Sanford Dole led a movement to bully King Kalakaua into signing a new constitution. The king retained only his status as a figurehead. (Kalakaua’s own bad behavior required of Thurston and Dole less soul-searching than they otherwise might have done.) The new constitution withheld the vote from almost anyone who wasn’t haole (of European blood) or of Hawaiian descent and wealthy. It banned free speech, free press and the right to trial by jury.

Thurston, Dole and their friends managed to get the U.S. Navy to arrive on Oahu and help make Hawaii a territory, compliments of Congress and President Benjamin Harrison.  (His predecessor, Grover Cleveland, had balked.) Among the losers was Queen Lilioukalani, who wrote the Hawaiian anthem, “Aloha ‘Oe.” The regime of “President” Dole locked her up on the second floor of Honolulu’s Iolani Palace and forced her to abdicate the throne by threatening to kill captured royalists if she didn’t.

Unfamiliar Fishes entertains as it teaches. We read a history infused with the stamp of a popular writer who approaches her subjects from the perspective of a journalist, essayist and radio performer. Vowell inserts her opinions into the narrative so often that the book is it almost a travelogue.

Her first paragraph describes the modern Hawaiian plate lunch, one version of which is a Japanese chicken dish with American macaroni salad, which she eats under a banyan tree that harks back to India. “The banyan’s gray branches shoot off slim sprouts that drip down and bore slowly into the ground and take root, bulging into new, connected trunks” she writes, “leading to more and more trunks, until each tree becomes its own spooky little forest.”

Vowell describes Hawaii’s history as “a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga,” adding that it “tracks with how I see the history of the United States in general.” That’s interesting to know, but it is her narcissistic flit through Unfamiliar Fishes that sticks with the reader.

A veteran print and broadcast journalist, Robert M. Knight is author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press, 2010). He taught at Northwestern University and Gettysburg College.

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