Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Publisher: Riverhead (Print) / Simon & Schuster Audio (Audio)
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Audiobook
Rating: 4 out of 5
In her latest work of non-fiction, Sarah Vowell recounts the tumultuous history of Hawaii. She discusses the missionaries who left the United States for Hawaii in 1820 and their eventual coup against the queen, which led directly to the American annexation of Hawaii in 1898.
I really have enjoyed the Sarah Vowell books I’ve read (reviews of Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates), so I was looking forward to reading her new book. Though I’ve visited Hawaii multiple times, I don’t know much about its history, so I was eager to learn something while also being entertained by Vowell’s trademark wit.
When it comes to Hawaii, Vowell does have some biases, but she’s very up front about them. It’s difficult not to have an opinion after hearing how the missionaries inadvertently destroyed the native culture of Hawaii, all while thinking they were doing good. At the same time, Vowell presents the other side – the missionaries helped the native Hawaiians turn their backs on unhealthy practices such as royal incest. While she acknowledges that they did do some good, overall it’s clear that the missionaries’ lasting impact wasn’t a positive one.
While Unfamiliar Fishes is well-researched, it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Vowell’s other works. It’s never dry or boring, but Vowell clearly doesn’t have the same passion for Hawaiian history as she does for presidential assassinations. Her enthusiasm doesn’t come through as much in this book, unfortunately, and as a result, it went slower for me than I would have liked.
I listened to Unfamiliar Fishes on audio, which I’ve learned is the best choice for Sarah Vowell’s books. She narrates her own audios, and while her voice takes some adjustment, it’s perfect for her dry wit. The audio version is unabridged and runs seven and a half hours.
Unfamiliar Fishes is a brief but interesting history of a part of the United States that many of us aren’t familiar with, beyond its sandy beaches and Pearl Harbor. This isn’t a rigorous, in-depth history, but it provides a great overview and introduction to those who aren’t overly familiar with Hawaiian history. I learned a lot, and the fact that I enjoyed the experience only serves to underscore my love for Sarah Vowell and her books.