Saturday, June 7, 2014

Unfamiliar Fishes - Sarah Vowell

    2011; 238 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Non-Fiction; History.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Hawaii.  How the heck did it end up a US possession?  We weren’t the first Western nation to land there.  The British were.  We weren’t even the second; that was the French.  We didn’t buy it, like we did Alaska.  We didn’t even start a war to grab it from a weaker nation, like we did for the Philippines.

    But God will make a way.  It's our manifest destiny.  Send in the missionaries.

What’s To Like...
    Unfamiliar Fishes is not a complete history of Hawaii; instead it focuses on the years from 1820, when the first white people went there to settle, to 1898, when the US formally annexed it.  Those 1820 settlers were in fact missionaries, and they would have a profound and lasting impact on the history of the Hawaiian Islands.

    Sarah Vowell did extensive research for the book, including reading a number of journals kept by those first-generation missionaries.  The history is told from the native Hawaiians’ POV, which is to be expected.  But the author balances the positives and negatives of both sides.  The natives got shafted, but their rulers, had only recently consolidated their power, were corrupt, and invited the missionaries to land and dwell on their isles.

    Sarah Vowell employs her trademark style here; this is not a dry, boring history tome.  You will learn the meaning of lots of Hawaiian words and phrases – haole, wahine maka, palapala, mikanele (a corruption of ‘missionary’), and my personal favorite “Big Kahuna”.

    You will also become familiar with 19th-century Hawaiian culture, and will learn some neat trivia to boot.  The only palace on US soil is located here, and the first newspaper to be printed west of the Rockies started in Hawaii.  There are numerous Vowell personal “asides”, which can get distracting at times.  But she closes the book with a tribute to Bruddah Iz, so all is forgiven.  

    Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch?  Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound  for Hawaii in 1819.  That and it’s Saturday.  Rainbow Drive-In only serves shoyu chicken four days a week.
    A banyan tree in Waikiki is a fine spot for a sunburned tourist from New York City to sit beneath and ponder the historical implications of a lukewarm box of takeout.  Because none of us belong here – not me, not the macaroni, not the chicken soaked in soy sauce, not even the tree.”  (loc. 46, and the opening paragraphs of the book.)

    Queen Liliuokalani, now released from her palace prison, traveled to the United States to lobby against annexation once again.  On a train from California heading east, she marveled, “Here were thousands of acres of uncultivated, uninhabited, but rich and fertile lands... Colonies and colonies could be established here... And yet this great and powerful nation must go across two thousand miles of sea, and take from the poor Hawaiians their little spots in the broad Pacific.”  She had a point, but it doesn’t take a graduate of the Naval War College to notice you can’t exactly park a battleship in Denver.  (loc. 2710)

Kindle Details...
    Unfamiliar Fishes sells for $10.99 at Amazon.  Sarah Vowell has five other books available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $7.59 to $10.99.  In most cases, the paperback format is $2-$3 more than the Kindle, but since you can resell a “real” book you’ve read to a used bookstore, it might make more economic sense to go with the paperback.  Or check with your local library, since I borrowed  Unfamiliar Fishes through mine for free.

”You don’t earn the nickname “Merrie Monarch” by sticking to a budget.”  (loc. 2345)
    Here’s the formula used to subjugate Hawaii,
    First send in the missionaries with their Bibles, English language (the Hawaiians had no writing system), printing presses, and Western culture.  Next send in the sailors with their various killing diseases - influenza, smallpox, and measles - to decimate the population.

    Get the natives hooked on money (buying and selling were new concepts to them).  Now that they understand material wealth, have them  start growing acres and acres of sugar cane, and market it to the United States.  But cultivating sugar cane is labor-intensive, so bring in lots of foreigners, mostly from Asia.  Before you know it, the native Hawaiians are a minority, and there goes their power.

    Send in American “advisors” to sway the Royals into making new self-crippling laws.  And finally, send in the troops and stage a coup.  Voila!  It worked like a charm.

    I found Unfamiliar Fishes to be an interesting read, with only a couple of small patches where the asides became tedious.  Sarah Vowell is a gifted writer, being able to make learning History a fun experience.

    8 Stars.  Not quite as good as Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates (reviewed here), but perhaps there was less subject matter to work with here.  Highly recommended.  Subtract 2 stars if you think it is America’s duty to foist our culture on the whole world.  Subtract another 2 stars if you happen to be a missionary.

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