Neon sign: Jesus Coming Soon on church, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

Unfamiliar Fishes is the product a very fortunate convergence. Author Sarah Vowell has a delicious appreciation for the peculiar coincidences and ironies produced when cultures clash and combine into the slaw of American history — and Hawaii, our 50th state, is a former Eden now brimming with history’s bizarre hodgepodge.

“Unfamiliar fishes” is Hawaiian historian David Malo‘s metaphor for the ravenous white people who came to devour it. The phrase serves as the title of Sarah Vowell’s 2011 book on Hawaii — an amazed, narrative tour of Hawaiian history, roughly from Captain James Cook‘s arrival there in 1778-79 to Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, but focussed primarily on the missionary period between 1820 and 1898.

Vowell opens Unfamiliar Fishes with the example of a modern Hawaiian plate lunch — two scoops of white rice, another of macaroni, and an entrée of Polynesian or Asian protein, in this case shoyu chicken. None of these items is natively Hawaiian, and for that matter, neither is the banyan tree in Waikiki under which she dines. With that, we’re off on a far-flung adventure through centuries and across several continents to unravel how Hawaii became what it is today.

At the heart of her book is the story of the Protestant missionaries from Massachusetts who endured the long and grueling ocean voyage to Hawaii with their hastily married spouses in order to tame and enlighten the native Hawaiians — and dissuade them from unchristian practices such as human sacrifice and incestuous polygamy. Vowell admits a certain admiration for the missionaries’ guts and good intentions:

Sure, all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is — a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere to inform the locals they are wrong. But it’s worth remembering that these women, and the men they married so recklessly, believed they were risking their own lives to spare strangers on the other side of the world from an eternity in hell.

Of couse, the white people also brought diseases which eventually wiped out the vast majority of native Hawaiians — and they all but smothered the Hawaiian culture, banning the Hawaiian language and the hula for a time, and imposing American agriculture, architecture, clothing, real estate swindles, oligarchy, and finally statehood upon the remaining native survivors.

Vowell is entertaining, yet sober and even reverent while detailing both the agonies and the accomplishments this cultural tsunami produced. For instance, in a mere 41 years, the Hawaiian people went from having no written language at all to a literacy rate of 75 percent — superior to both the United States and Western Europe by the end of missionary operations in 1863. On the other hand, Hawaiian taro farmers and fishermen were reassigned to logging work in Hawaii’s treacherous mountains and put to death for slacking off.

Sarah Vowell: Unfamiliar Fishes

Surrounding and woven through the threads of the missionary saga are snatches of Hawaiian mythology, accounts of Vowell’s Cherokee ancestors’ dealings with the same missionary organization, parades and protests in the streets of modern day Honolulu, and visits to museums. We regard the astonishing Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian native educated in New England who inspired the mission to the islands in the first place. We learn some fascinating and revolting facts about the whaling industry, and we observe King Kalakaua, the dissolute “Merrie Monarch” who let his nation get poached while he got sauced. We commiserate with Queen Liliuokalani, the wise and multi-talented last monarch of Hawaii, held prisoner in ‘Iolani Palace to quilt, compose songs, and write her memoirs while the Americans appropriated her country.

Vowell’s wry wit and associative wanderings bring out more of the natural flavor than do typical Hawaiian history books. Unfamiliar Fishes is not a dry, linear inventory of names and dates, but a well-shaped collection of anecdotes, observations, and research formed around a core saga. In some respects, it reminds me of Mark Twain’s letters from Hawaii, but with an extra century of perspective. Anyone with the slightest interest in this most remote archipelago should find it enjoyable and enlightening.

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