Archive for June 3rd, 2012

Unfamiliar Fishes

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Sarah Vowell’s ┬áhistories are as entertaining as they are insightful — which is too a high degree. This one is about Hawaii and the New England missionaries that changed it irrevocably. Vowell puts herself into her work and has a definite point of view. However, she also brings in a lot of context and background so you understand the whys behind actions that to many modern eyes just seem wrong.


The ┬áhistory books of our school years consistently position America as on the side of all things good. Of course, that depends on your perspective — I’m pretty sure this continent’s native population didn’t hold that opinion in the 1800s. Vowell brings a much broader perspective to her historical books. She looks at issues from all sides, examines the roots of people’s thinking, and brings cultural differences to light. You gain a bigger, much messier picture of the past that is not only far more interesting but also helps you to better understand our present situation.

Plus, she is hugely entertaining, with a hip writing style and wry commentary. While she puts no one on a pedestal, neither does she paint any of history’s makers as complete villains. That makes for a fresher approach to history, knowledge worth having, and an enjoyable read. Win. Win. Win.

A Little Plot:

Unfamiliar Fishes focuses on Hawaii from the time the first missionaries arrived from New England in 1820 until the government coup led by their descendants that toppled the independent Hawaiian government in 1893. That might sound like it will be a one-sided story, basically trashing American imperialism. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Vowell gives you an understanding of how everything from New England Puritanism to Teddy Roosevelt’s belief in a strong navy, to a spend-thrift king played a part in Hawaii’s fascinating history. She also provides a look into the island’s rich and extensive history and culture before it was discovered by the European world.

I learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it. My extensive 30 second search on line didn’t turn up a website for the author, but if you want to hear an interview with her about this book, click here.


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