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Book Review


Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. Pp. 238. $25.95 (hardcover).


     In the interest of full disclosure, it is difficult for this reviewer not to be completely seduced by any book that invokes a plate lunch from Rainbow Drive-In in its opening sentence and describes the United States' 1898 annexations of Hawai‘i, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico as a "four-month orgy of imperialism" on the third page. As this is a Sarah Vowell book, such a startling opener should surprise no one. With Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell, that darling of public radio's This American Life, regular guest on The Daily Show, and author of several books and many essays on aspects of American culture and history ranging from presidential assassinations to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, takes us to Hawai‘i to explore its history. Obviously, Vowell is not a professional historian. Nor is she claiming to present new historical research. Rather her book is an extended meditation on the intertwined histories of the Hawaiian Islands and the "Mainland," the United States of America. Presented in an engaging style with plenty of her famous sarcastic wit, the book examines the various impacts of Captain Cook, New England missionaries, sugar cane, the concept of private property, and American expansionists on Hawai‘i. While not an academic work, teachers and students of world history will find Unfamiliar Fishes a delightful and engaging read that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

     Vowell starts with the riddle of the plate lunch. She asks how it came to be that Japanese-style chicken and macaroni salad are standard fare in contemporary popular Hawaiian cuisine. This culinary metaphor serves as a strategy to explore Hawai‘i as caught in global forces of history beyond local control and, all too often, comprehension. Clearly some sort of remarkable fusion of East and West has happened, and it has manifested itself in the multi-cultural space of the plate lunch. After introducing the ethnic diversity of today's Hawai‘i and some brief descriptions of the islands pre-contact, Vowell sets about detailing the arrival of the first haole, or outsiders (also meaning "white person" in contemporary pidgin). Starting with Cook's ill-fated voyage, she then discusses the revival of Protestant fundamentalism in post-Enlightenment New England. Placing the missionary zeal as a reaction against the godless threat of the secular values of the American and French revolutions, Vowell goes to great lengths to humanize the handful of idealistic New Englanders who left their family and friends to save the souls of Hawaiians from an alleged tyrannical paganism. Never one to miss an opportunity to tease her subjects or to point out their idiosyncrasies, quirks, and hypocrisies, Vowell's version of these events is nothing short of fun. That said, her humor should not be taken as a lack of seriousness or sincerity, but rather a sign that she is truly fascinated by the people about which she is writing. Some readers looking for a study of Hawaiian history might be frustrated by the extent of her discussion of these New Englanders. In her defense, it is important to know both sides of any colonial encounter. Fans of Vowell may decide that Unfamiliar Fishes covers much ground familiar to those who have read The Wordy Shipmates, her historical reflection on Puritanism in America. Importantly, the book does an excellent job at showing how the missionary agenda interacted with changes brought about by the Hawaiians themselves, such as Ka'ahumanu's breaking of traditional kapu restrictions on men and women eating together. Indigenous agency worked in conjunction with alien practices such as literacy and sexual shame to transform the islands. Sadly, this transformation produced confusion and chaos as the indigenous population sought to make sense of a world out of balance.

     The majority of the book recounts various moments in the interactions between haole and Hawaiian in the mid-nineteenth century. Missionaries do dominate the story, but various tropical adventurers and ne'er-do-wells such as whalers, and attorneys also make appearances. The former are one of the great symbols of the way in which Hawai‘i entered the world system. After the missionary impact on indigenous culture, the integration of Hawai‘i into global trade networks is an important theme in Unfamiliar Fishes. Initially, the islands saw a sudden economic boom as the foreigners discovered previously untapped sources of sandalwood. In the space of a few years, untold tons of the fragrant trees were felled, shipped to China, and burned as incense. However, as with forests in places as remote as Timor in previous centuries, sandalwood proved to be a short-lived export crop as the trees take far too long to replace once harvested. Yet the socio-economic cat was out of the bag, and native elites began to enjoy cash payments for products from the land. Soon, land itself became a commodity. Enter the lawyers. Struggling to ensure the nation's independence, the Hawaiian kings sought to modernize their political system. As part of this process, control of land was transferred from royal possession to popular ownership as private property. Vowell recounts how the legal complexities the Great Mahele of 1848 (including the bizarre concept of private ownership of once communal lands) failed to provide access to land for the vast majority of the indigenous population for whom private property was an alien idea. This paved the way for the adult children of the original missionaries and other malihini or "new comers" to engage in a land grab, eventually establishing sugar-cane, and later pineapple, plantations. By the 1860s, Hawaiians had effectively lost control of their ancestral lands, and a new regime of wage labor and cash crop exports was reshaping the islands' socio-economic order. While triumphed as the spread of modernity by haole observers, the new economic order was a classic case of Marxist alienation, a situation made dramatically worse by the horrifying spread of new diseases and the demographic collapse of the kanaka population.

     The book ends with the seemingly inescapable force of the combined American economic, political, and strategic interests exploding in the "four-month orgy of imperialism." At this point, annexation of the islands could be written off as an inevitable historical process, but Vowell continues to point out that the actions of specific individuals in Honolulu and in Washington D.C. led to Hawai‘i's loss of independence. The book paints Sanford Dole and Lorrin Thurston in a relatively unflattering light and highlights the aggressive nationalism of Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. This reviewer believes those critiques fit with the historical narratives, but wishes that she had done further reading on King David Kalākaua and Walter Murray Gibson. Her analysis on Gibson focuses on various clichés about his scandals and fails to seriously consider his role in the New Departure of the 1880s, the kingdom's last gamut to save its sovereignty.

     An even more serious critique lies in her failure to give sufficient discussion to the islands' Asian-American community. While shoyu chicken and white rice are mentioned in the plate lunch, a few individuals such as Chinn Ho and Hiram Fong make appearances, and although she describes the influx of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino plantation workers, the Asian-American presence is similar to the Filipina waitress mentioned on the penultimate page. She is noted but not developed, seen but not heard (at least not to the same extent as the kvetching mainland tourists and the strains of Brother Iz). In her discussion of education, she invokes Punahou and its curious history as alma mater of Hawaiian kings and queens, haole leaders of the white supremacist Republic of Hawaii, and America's first African-American president but she fails to mention ‘Iolani and one of its most famous alum Sun Yat-Sen. As Vowell's focus is the haole-kanaka relationship of the nineteenth century, this is understandable. Unfortunately, it reifies a false dichotomy of colonizer and colonized, white and black, or haole and kanaka, eliding the extremely crucial Asian contributions. In this regard, the book fails to present an accurate portrait of Hawai‘i's multi-ethnic past and present. Lest we forget, the only source of protein on the plate lunch is that shoyu chicken.

     As in Assassination Vacation and her other books, Vowell combines historical narrative of key events with personal travelogue to specific sites mentioned in the text. Following in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Journalism, she inserts herself and her irrepressible sarcasm into the discussion (through without Thompson's famous fondness for psychedelics and pharmaceuticals). Every page, if not every paragraph, drips with her own special bookishly nerdy snarkiness. She obviously can't help herself and her comments are, for the most part, hilarious. While Vowell is a funny and engaging writer, this reviewer wonders if her humor might seem flip or immature to those who do not share her political and cultural views, especially those who might have a personal stake in the outcome of this history. Mentioning her trace amounts of Cherokee blood and describing her contributions to a demonstration marking the loss of sovereignty, she makes no secret that her political sympathies lie with the activists. This may alienate some, such as the contemporary descendants of the missionaries she so joyously teases, but one would hope that the strength of her prose, her sincere efforts to explore this conflicted history, and her reliance on fairly strong secondary and, more limited, primary sources will win over those put off by her style and politics. World historians looking for informed bedtime reading or an edifying book to take on an airplane would be well advised to pick up Unfamiliar Fishes, but I think we all would prefer to read it under a shady banyan tree in Waikīkī or Lāhainā.

Michael G. Vann is an Associate Professor of History at Sacramento State where he teaches several courses in world history as well as the history of Southeast Asia, colonialism/imperialism, and genocide. He is the author of over a dozen articles on the history of empire, focusing on subjects ranging from urban planning and rat hunting to cinema and murder. He is the author of, "The Colonial Good Life:" André Joyeux's Visions of French Indochina (White Lotus: 2008) and Twentieth Century Voices: Selected Readings in World History (Cognella: 2012) He is the immediate Past President of the French Colonial Historical Society and Vice President of the California World History Association. He was raised in Honolulu and is a proud graduate of ‘Iolani. He can be reached at


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