Ms. Vowell goes to Hawaii – “Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell
It’s hard not to visit the gorgeous place and not become enraptured not only by it’s spectacular beauty (it really does look like a postcard) but also it’s fascinating history. Well, at least for my husband and I – history nerds – it wasn’t. There were certainly tons of bikini-clad tourists around who were there only for the sun and shopping and didn’t care to learn a thing about history.
That’s not how I roll.
So it pleased me immensely when I heard that Sarah Vowell’s next book was about the annexation of Hawaii. In previous books, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain have attempted to write about this most unsettled of lands – and the results are fine, if incredibly dated. Vowell is one of those writers whose books I will buy the day they’re released, and to wrap all her genius and smarts and modern sensibilities into a topic I’m fascinated by seemed like pure perfection.
“Unfamiliar Fishes” is really, really good. I knew I was going to love it when the opening line contains a reference to “plate lunch,” which is a remarkable Hawaiian THING that you have to eat to understand. (Chicago-ites, you should try Aloha Eats on Clark for the only real Hawaiian plate lunch in town.) From there, Ms. Vowell launches into the history of how Hawaii, once a kingdom all it’s own with a monarchy, got visited by missionaries, had some revolutions, and eventually became part of the United States of America.
As always, Vowell comes off as your really smart, funny, and interesting friend explaining history to you. She travels to Hawaii in addition to several other places, and for those who’ve read some of her other books brings her young nephew Owen with her to provide his adorable (and normally spot-on) commentary along the way.
Reading “Unfamiliar Fishes” reminded me of my favorite parts of my vacation there – namely, visiting the I’olani Palace where Queen Liliuokalani lived (and was held in a room for eight months) and the overwhelming sense of history and broken ties.
(Note: One of my favorite historical figures, Liliuokalani was also a noted songwriter. In fact, in 2009 when Barack Obama – the first Hawaiian born President of the United States – was inaugurated, it was the Queen’s song “Aloha O’ie” that was played. Seems crazy that it was a previous US president who essentially overthrew her reign and toppled her kingdom, doesn’t it?)
The history of Hawaii isn’t always as beautiful as the land, but it’s just as captivating.