Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell discusses Hawaiian and American history, with an emphasis on the New England missionaries who went to Hawaii to convert the natives in the early 1800s. They were some of the most influential “unfamiliar fishes” referred to by minister, educator, and historian David Malo: “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.  The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries.  They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.”

This is not a traditional history book. Vowell mingles information about her research, notes on outings with her family, commentary on the food she is eating etc. while laying out Hawaiian history. Some readers will not like her snarky tone, but I found the book extremely funny and educational. For example, she writes, “all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is – a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong.” I agree with this completely; others may find it misguided or offensive.

Like the histories of all native peoples, it’s a sad book. I’ve been to Hawaii twice and it is a beautiful place, weirdly Americanized yet not at all “North American” way out there in the middle of the Pacific. Although the book cannot be described as unbiased, it is balanced; the author does not paint the Hawaiians as blameless in the Americanization of their islands and culture.

It is clear that Vowell did an immense amount of research while writing Unfamiliar Fishes. It introduced me to a lot of new information and I’m glad I read it. Two of the library's book clubs had lively discussions about it.

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