Sarah Vowell’s subversive wit and heady take on history are well known from her previous best-sellers such as The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, as well as her work on Public Radio International’s “This American Life.” Her latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, delivers a romp through Hawaiian history beginning in 1819. The New England missionaries who arrived that year were some of the first “unfamiliar fishes” to come ashore bringing visions of change for the islands—welcome or not. “Hawaiians,” she tells us, “have a word for all the pasty-faced explorers, Bible thumpers, whalers, tycoons, con men, soldiers and vacationers” who disrespect their culture: haole.
Vowell writes with characteristic straightforwardness in describing one such haole, Walter Murray Gibson, who came to the islands in the 1860s with various schemes designed to spread Mormonism and immortalize himself. At 21, as a recently widowed father of three, he wrote, “I wanted to fly on the wings of the wind toward the rising sun.” Vowell translates: “Which is a poetic way of saying he ditched his kids with his dead wife’s relatives and lit out on a life of adventure.”
There are many colorful characters throughout the book—King Kamehameha the Great, Henry Obookiah, Princess Nahi’ena—but one of the most fascinating is Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian queen, who traveled to America to appeal directly to Congress not to annex her country. Though fighting to stay queen of a sovereign nation, she visited George Washington’s tomb, writing in her memoirs admiringly about “that great man who assisted at the birth of the nation which has grown to be so great.”
Liliuokalani was the last graduate of Hawaii’s royal school, a place designed to Americanize the royal children. Another school established for the children of missionaries became a world-class institution that counts our current president as an alumnus. “I wonder,” Vowell muses, “what Liliuokalani might have thought witnessing President Obama’s inauguration when 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.’ ”
With observations like these, Unfamiliar Fishes will help readers appreciate our beautiful 50th state like never before.