Pretty much exactly two years ago, I read and reviewed Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, a thorough, unflinching, and, at times, hilarious look at Hawaii’s evolution from island unification to statehood. Though it is not one I would revisit for sentimental reasons, it is a really excellent one to occasionally reread, particularly for non-fictionphobes and those who might be traveling to Hawaii any time soon. I fall in the latter category, and, while I am immensely looking forward to trying a Mai Tai and spending plenty of time on the beach in between experiencing the usual touristy attractions, I thought it might not be a bad idea to remind myself of a bit of the history of our most westerly state.
After rereading my earlier review, I would like to report that most of my quibbles from last time were resolved upon a second reading, though I admittedly did not remember much from the first reading. Though Vowell’s nephew, Owen, was not nearly as prominent as I remember him being, he was still sweetly hilarious, and Vowell’s digressions make complete sense within the context of her narrative. And though it is certainly a light read, it should not be mistaken for a piece of academic fluff. It is meticulously researched, well-presented with a clear point of view, and beautifully captures Vowell’s voice and personal connection to her topic while still presenting as nuanced and realistic view of all the major players as possible. It is how I envision the future of academic writing: high quality academic research packaged in a highly engaging and accessible way. History wasn’t boring, so the academic literature should reflect that.
What I deeply appreciate about Vowell’s account is that she presents Hawaiian history warts and all. Though she clearly has more sympathy for the native Hawaiians than the haole missionaries, she grounds all of her narrative analysis in reality, choosing to clarify the Hawaiian’s faults and praise the missionaries virtues and vice-versa rather than just taking one side and condemning the other. It would be easy to do so in favor of either group, but that’s not Vowell’s purpose. Instead she wants to explore the state and its residents’ complicated relationship with American statehood and how the historical evolution of the people and their personal connection with their land got them to their current point. As Vowell’s narrative creeps closer to the 1890’s overthrow of Queen Liliuakalani and the annexation of Hawaii by the United States, her perspective does become a bit more pronounced, but only because the actions of the major players become more obviously black and white. However, she freely acknowledges her own bias, which frees the reader to form their own opinion regarding her narrative of Hawaiian history. Her first person interviews with modern descendants of both the Hawaiian aristocracy and the missionary class are balanced, thoughtful, and purposefully employed, and they are really what make the narrative sing.
Vowell does not hope, nor does she try, to encompass all of Hawaiian history in her book. However, she presents a witty, thoughtful, entertaining, and human account of a complicated history that is all too often reduced to the major themes of religion, colonization, and capitalism. Additionally, it is a spectacular piece of travel writing and one that I would encourage everyone traveling to the state to read. I strongly believe it is our duty as responsible travelers to know some of the historical truths of the places we visit, and Vowell’s account certainly fills that requirement for those visiting Hawaii.