Unfamiliar Fishes

Author: Sarah Vowell

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2011

I read it: December 2015


I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

For many years, one of my unfamiliar fishes was this type of narrative historical non-fiction. But after trying out authors like Erik Larson and Nathaniel Philbrick, I’ve seen the appeal. Vowell was a new name to me, but when this book came in the mail it was short and had some nifty cover art so I dove in without too much hesitation.

From what I understand, Vowell is a mostly white (though part Cherokee) American writing about the history of Hawaii out of sheer curiosity. Her book covers the expected topic of colonialism, with stark facts like the population of pure Hawaiians dropping from 300,000 in 1778 to 34,436 in 1890. She often imbues the telling with zingers, such as one American organization’s mission “to fan out evangelists across the Pacific to spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.”

As a thorough researcher, Vowell takes pains to undo the oversimplification of framing the state’s history as simply an authoritarian society overtaking a free one. She offers this context instead:

The cultural collision of the New Englanders and their new neighbors isn’t a quarrel between barefoot, freewheeling libertines and starchy, buttoned-up paragons of virtue (though that is how the missionaries see it). To me, it is the story of traditionalists squaring off.

The book constantly jumps back and forth between the struggles of both the natives and the colonialists, with plenty of nuggets about the quirks and drives of multiple parties. But this onslaught of historical trivia, woven into the author’s personal journeys around the islands, seems unanchored. I feel like I read plenty about Kamehameha, Liliuokalani, Hiram Bingham, and David Malo, but I couldn’t summarize anything about them.

The issue is mostly a structural one: there are no chapters in this book. For real. Not only that, there are no headings. There are a few page breaks, but that’s it. The entire text is completely devoid of a plan (or a map, if you will). Why not have distinct chapters about specific people or eras? The existing text would only need to be shifted and shored up a bit. Then it could be used as both entertainment and as reference. For example, it would be nice to be able to come back to this juicy slice:

When the cable linking Hawaii to the Philippines was complete, President Theodore Roosevelt was given the honor of transmitting the very first round-the-world message on July 4, 1903. He wished “a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties.”

That’s golden, but it’s bound to stay buried treasure in this unbroken sea of words. There’s also a lost opportunity due to lack of images. We get that cool cover, and then another (untitled, unattributed) piece of art, and a view of a map after the dedication page. Perhaps reproductions of historical photos or documents are costly, but any sort of visual help throughout would benefit the reader and more fully involve them.

So who is this book for? My only guess is a specific one: a person on a plane on the return trip from Hawaii. For those of us who haven’t been there, it’s kind of just a big tease. For those who have, it only makes sense to read in one long stretch: that plane ride home, when you can insert your own mental images and you’re unconcerned with using chapters as stopping points.


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