Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes has intrigued me for a while, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. A history of the unification, American colonization, and industrialization of Hawaii written by the voice of Violet from The Incredibles? Yes, please. I will admit that I was a bit nervous to read a non-fiction history by the voice of a cartoon character, but I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that Vowell, despite my first introduction to her, is primarily a writer, best known for her contributing editor role at NPR’s This American Life. Vowell’s approach to Hawaii, consistent with her other work, was wry, laugh-out-loud funny, and meticulously and impressively researched.
Vowell intersperses her discussion of Hawaii’s recent history, beginning with Kamehameha I’s warlike unification of the Hawaiian Islands and ending with discussions of the present day debate on Hawaiian independence, with details of her own research (and vacation) trips to Hawaii. The result is an intimate and personal account as Vowell interviewed and met with several Hawaiians on various issues regarding Hawaii’s history and complicated relationship with statehood. The voices of the people spring from the pages, authentic, impassioned, and respectful even when stating a controversial opinion. Vowell’s own voice is clearly present as well; her clarity, humor, and conversational style make the book a pleasure to read.
Vowell certainly does not shrink away from presenting her own opinion either, though the book could not be mistaken for “The History of Hawaii as Imagined by Sarah Vowell.” The interjection of her own opinion is used strategically, usually to point out an absurdity or contradiction somewhere along the way. Her lampooning of the American missionaries who come to Hawaii to convert and civilize is quite hilarious, and the comic ridiculousness of their ideas and plans is staggering at times. That being said, if you are one who is easily offended by someone making fun of those doing God’s work, either take a chill pill or don’t read this book. Do understand that Vowell injects her humor and opinions for a purpose: to show the situation as realistically as possible which includes revealing the missionaries’ immense lack of preparedness and gross misunderstanding of what they were getting themselves in to. She does not negate or undermine the faith the missionaries had in their work, but rather reveals the messiness of life on both sides of the conversion mission.
Occasionally Vowell jumps head on into a seemingly random digression. Though I, as a world class digressor, appreciate such leaps, it is occasionally hard to follow her on her tangent. I didn’t always understand why we were talking about the expulsion of Native Americans through the Trail of Tears when we needed to get back to the first missionaries’ matchmaking experiences or the differences between the various Kamehamehas. (There were a lot of Kamehamehas and differences between them.) But be patient. Her digressions always have a point, which she will always make. Eventually.
Unfamiliar Fishes was a delightful read, the kind of breezy, gossipy, funny non-fiction where you actually learn quite a bit. Both Vowell’s research and the respect with which she treated both her subject and her modern day interviewees were impressive and made for a tight, immensely fascinating book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work. Lastly, Vowell’s young nephew, Owen, make several appearances in the book. I just have to say, that kid is hilarious and we would be friends. If you read this book for no other reason, read it to meet Owen.