Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

Reading Sarah Vowell's 2011 book Unfamiliar Fishes is like skimming through a 230-page-long magazine article. It's a witty, easily digestible take on a fascinating element of American history—but I would have preferred less wit and more dry facts.

Unfamiliar Fishes is the story of the Americanization of Hawaii. Vowell begins with the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, and ends 70-odd years later, with the 1893 coup d'état (led by the grandsons of those same missionaries) that overthrew the Hawaiian queen. In between, she interweaves stories about whalers, sugar barons, incestuous monarchs, religious fanatics, and con men, illustrating the origins of the cultural hodgepodge that makes up modern-day Hawaii.

Vowell's arch style can be irritating, and the pacing of Unfamiliar Fishes is frustratingly arbitrary. Stories are compressed or expanded at whim, with the author giving roughly equal time to the start of the Spanish-American War and her memories of Hawaii Five-O. She barely touches on the pre-1820 history of Hawaii, nor does she talk much about the long-term affects of American annexation. Still, the final result is engrossing and informative, and I can't be too picky: my high school history textbook devoted less than a page to the history of Hawaii, so I must thank Vowell for introducing me to a subject which I knew absolutely nothing about.
Posted by: Julianka


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