Unfamiliar Fishes

My feelings about Sarah Vowell are well documented on Minnesota Reads. Admittedly, I am a fanboy and love how she weaves history, pop culture, and humor together into books that both educate and entertain. It's been a few years since The Wordy Shipmates, and I was eager to read Unfamiliar Fishes, her new book about what happened in Hawaii during the seventy-eight years between the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the 1898 annexation by the United States.

Part of my desire to read Unfamiliar Fishes was to see how Vowell handled the serious and disturbing history of indigenous oppression committed by both Europeans and the United States. It's hard to be humorous when examining such a terrible history of racism, exploitation, and oppression, and Vowell showed how adept she is at integrating some current cultural references into this history without being vulgar or disrespectful. It wasn't the humor that made me bust out laughing like when she described Roger Williams as a hurricane in The Wordy Shipmates. Rather, Vowell wrote with a bitter irony that helped drive the point home to the reader that what happened in Hawaii echoes today like a history that isn't being learned.

I wonder what she [Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch who was backdoored by usurpers desiring to be annexed by the U.S.] would have thought if she had known, witnessing that inaugural parade [William McKinley], that 112 years later, the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States would be inaugurated and in his parade, the marching band from Punahou School, his alma mater (and that of her enemies), would serenade the new president by playing a song she had written, “Aloha 'Oe.” (pg. 217)

Finally, voters for senators should be restricted “absolutely to those who can speak, read and write the English language.” In this, Thurston [a non-indigenous Hawaiian who advocated for annexation] suggest that Dole [another pro-annexation Thurston crony and leader of the interim government that formed after Queen Liliuokalani was removed from power] track down a copy of the new Mississippi state constitution, because this post-Reconstruction Jim Crow masterpiece had figured out innovative ways to deny blacks the right to vote that the Dole government could apply to native Hawaiians. Thurston believes they could go further, refining Mississippi's requirement that a voter should understand the constitution with a Hawaiian update in which “the voter be able to write correctly from dictation any portion of the constitution. (pg. 212)

This is an important book that can help people reexamine the history of indigenous people they may have learned from school textbooks, one that is often skewed to glorify the United States while ignoring the genocide of indigenous people. Furthermore, Vowell looked at Hawaiian history, something that is often passed in favor of trivial matters like Greg Brady's surfing. Vowell said, “In certain ways, the Americanization of Hawaii in the nineteenth century parallels the Americanization of America” (pg. 7). As such, I believe this history deserves to be told along with mainland indigenous history rather than being relegated to the fiftieth state context. Vowell's book is a fantastic contribution that will help get that conversation started.

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1 Comment

  1. Jacqui Pirl 23.Mar.11 at 2:43 am

    Rumor has it, Ms. Vowell might be coming to the Hawaii Book and Music Festival this year, if any of you Minnesotans want an excuse to warm up!

    Come visit. May 14-15! Volunteers needed!

    Love your blog!!!

    Jacqui Pirl
    Volunteer Coordinator
    Hawaii Book and Music Festival http://www.hawaiibookandmusicfestival.org/


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