We just got home from a week on Oahu. My travel companions are of the go-go-go variety, so there wasn’t much time for sitting on the beach and reading. Fortunately, I started Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes before leaving home, and I did manage to carve out some time in the sand to finish it.
I have loved Sarah Vowell since I first heard her weird voice on NPR's "This American Life." Her deeply-curious-but-not-stuffy interest in out-of-the-way history appeals to the part of me that insists on stopping at historical markers or abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere. In Unfamiliar Fishes, she begins by looking at her “plate lunch,” in Honolulu, which, when you think about it, is a strange blend of regional foods: barbequed meat, macaroni salad, and Japanese rice. Why that odd mix of things? She goes on to examine how Hawaii became a modern, multi-ethnic American state (and military outpost and tropical tourist mecca).
The best part of Vowell’s writing is that she is willing to acknowledge everybody’s craziness. Her telling of Hawaii’s evolution is not merely a simple version of evangelism and colonialism, but, rather, a struggle between and among a plate lunch of powerful (and often absurd) people – Native Hawaiian and European and American alike. Of course, the result of this struggle WAS the takeover of Hawaii (and all the bad that process entails). Vowell is asking us to develop a greater consciousness about our own role in the ongoing Americanization of Hawaii, even if we enjoy an extra-large shave ice while we’re doing so.
Unfamiliar Fishes does suffer a bit from its lack of clear category. This is not scholarly history – you won’t find footnotes, and you will find many irreverent asides and snarky editorial comments. But this isn’t popular narrative history, either. Vowell gives us LOTS of detail about obscure events, and it was frankly not an easy beach read. Her analysis requires attention, especially with so many different “characters” vying for control. Still, I am so glad I experienced this book, and I was able to note the irony of my own participation as an “unfamiliar fish.”
You can listen to Vowell’s reports on "This American Life" here. And here she is talking about the book on the Daily Show. And here’s an interview she did with Goodreads readers.