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Sarah Vowell has written several books on American history and culture, and was a contributing editor for the radio program This American Life from 1996-2008. ( )

'Unfamiliar Fishes': Sarah Vowell's Glib Luau Tales

by Dan Kois
Mar 22, 2011

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Sarah Vowell has always been a tourist. That's long been her strength as a writer — she's no historian, and doesn't claim to be. Instead, her books and essays (often delivered, to great effect, on public radio) view history with a visitor's eye, as the peripatetic Vowell wryly comments on the museums, monuments and tourist traps through which Americans filter their nation's stories. It's a method that served her well in Assassination Vacation, her comic examination of presidential killings, and The Wordy Shipmates, about Puritan culture in New England.

Unfortunately, it's a method that fails Vowell in her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, in part because its subject — the short and awful history of Western intervention in Hawaii, up to U.S. annexation of the kingdom in 1898 — is so complicated that her anecdotal structure isn't quite up to the task. More fatally, though, Unfamiliar Fishes reveals the limitations of Vowell's arch style. It turns out that deadpan casualness may not be a useful stance from which to approach the story of the death of a nation — especially when those wounds are still raw and bleeding.

In 1778, Captain Cook, the first European on Hawaiian shores, met his death on the Big Island, and that was just about the last time that Kanaka Maoli — Native Hawaiians — came out ahead in their interactions with the haoles (outsiders) who would soon flood the islands. Missionaries came to save the Hawaiians' souls; whalers laid waste to the harbor towns during shore leave; sugar-cane magnates acquired enormous tracts of land. Ravaged by disease and starvation, the native population — estimated at 300,000 when Cook landed face-down in Kealakekua Bay — plummeted in just over a hundred years to about 40,000.

Vowell's strongest storytelling comes early in Unfamiliar Fishes, as she follows the New England families — branches from the Puritan tree whose roots she explored in her last book — who set up the islands' first Christian missions. Vowell is sympathetic to the missionary wives, whose letters and diaries help them become vivid characters; it took real bravery to sail to the hinterlands, concerned only for the spiritual well-being of strangers. (She is less impressed by missionaries, whom she broadly paints as "haole nerds" drunk on "Jesus juice.")

But Vowell is less surefooted in dealing with the tangled web of interests and allegiances that led to the islands' annexation, turning the book's last 50 pages into a torrent of names and dates. A reader not previously versed in Hawaiian history would be lost; on the other hand, it's hard to imagine what a reader who is versed would find of interest in this truncated retelling. A subject as complex, and charged, as the Hawaiian annexation deserves a popular history that takes the time and care to unravel it properly.

For the people of Hawaii, the United States takeover is still a very live issue, a point Vowell glancingly makes but one that deserves a fuller airing. Does that mean Vowell should be careful not to hurt feelings? Of course not. (Her frank discussion, for example, of the shortcomings of Hawaii's last king, David Kalakaua, might be poorly received on the islands, but it serves the book well.) But it does mean that her tourist's view of history feels out of tune with the story at hand — verging, at times, on callow.

From the beginning — an awkward passage waxing rhapsodic about the 1987 teen surfing drama North Shore — Vowell positions herself, and her readers, as outsiders to Hawaiian culture. (Early on, she describes Honolulu's Iolani Palace as a "historic site we have forgotten entirely"; a Native Hawaiian might respond quoting the old Lone Ranger joke: "Who you calling 'we,' kemosabe?") And of course Vowell is an outsider, as is every white person who has ever written about the islands. But there is little of the journalist's honest attempt to understand the world in Unfamiliar Fishes, to bring readers in; too often, Vowell maintains her poker face, unwilling to dig into the thorny details of what, truly, makes Hawaiian culture so valuable that it's worth writing an entire book about its loss.

Instead, there's just Sarah Vowell, bopping from museum to museum, sometimes quoting tour guides for paragraphs on end. And not just tour guides! Vowell is quick to cede her voice to other authors, to academics, to "a hula dancer friend from Maui" or a woman who worked in the Lahaina courthouse or "a man behind us in line" or "my friend Sherm." It's frustrating, because when she tries, Vowell is certainly capable of insight. For example, she is thoughtful in casting the initial encounters between starchy missionaries and Kanaka Maoli less as "some sort of clunky prequel to Footloose," but as the meeting of two very different kinds of traditionalists — a smart point, and a sympathetic one.

And she's good at connecting the dots in ways that make history vivid for her readers. Take the "exotic foliage" she notices planted in an iron try-pot — once used for rendering whale oil, then for boiling sugar cane. "Nearly two centuries of Hawaiian economics bloomed from that kettle," she writes, "from whaling, to sugar, to tourism." Where does Vowell make this terrific observation? "On the grounds of a plush resort on Maui," of course.

Dan Kois is the author of Facing Future, about the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. He lives in Arlington, Va., and writes for The New York Times, New York magazine, Slate, the Washington Post and other publications.

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