Summer Books 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes


“I’m not trying to excuse the racial imbalance of land ownership in Hawaii–that’s always going to be upsetting. I’m simply pointing out that to the haoles the acquisition of property had a deeper meaning than simple greed.”
Unfamiliar Fishes / Unfamiliar Fishes
Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Hardcover
256 Pages

More than a century after Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, here comes Unfamiliar Fishes, Hawaii’s story by a “sunburned tourist from New York City,” as Sarah Vowell, best-selling author of The Wordy Shipmates and other pop histories, describes herself. Despite the sunburn, Vowell makes it clear that, “unlike the flip-flop wearers on my flight to Honolulu, I didn’t come here for direct sunlight or ‘fun.’ ” Like the missionaries, she came on serious business, in her case to visit Pearl Harbor. Afterwards, stopping by ‘Iolani Palace on a whim, Vowell hears for the first time about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the house arrest of Queen Liliuokalani, and is moved to investigate further. The result is a refreshing read, especially for those of us who usually find history books to be a bit of a slog.

That’s because Vowell, although she’s written previously on American expansionism, is not your usual historian. Her narrative is elliptical rather than chronological, wandering in and out of four centuries like a tourist in Rome without a map. Her tone is sassy and self-engrossed, rather than grave and impersonal; her affect snarky hipster, more than scholarly academic. Still, unlike other darlings of late-night talk shows and the blogosphere, Vowell does her primary research. She studied the archives at the Mission Houses and Bishop Museums, hiked to Kaahumanu’s birth cave and the lonely grave of David Malo, who first warned against “unfamiliar fishes,” namely, Westerners. Vowell also ate at Rainbow Drive-Inn, where, like President Obama, “our first plate-lunch president,” she enjoyed the ethnic “mishmash” of the menu.

A glib wisecracker, Vowell can be pretty funny as a cultural commentator, too. Of the hula ma’i, she writes, “I envy a people who celebrate their leaders’ private parts…In the democratic republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn’t going to see his name on a ballot again.” She’s also a good storyteller, humanizing historical figures from Kamehameha I and Kaahumanu to Asa and Lucy Thurston and providing homely details of daily life and customs, alongside the grand sweep of politics and the near-eradication of the Native Hawaiian people, their culture and ecosystem.

Unfamiliar Fishes appreciates often-overlooked details, such as the art of fabrication and design embodied in the tapa skirt of Queen Kamamalu and the ‘oo feather skirt of Naha ‘ena ‘ena, a girl torn between the cultures, who was married to her brother and died young after losing her only child. As the Hawaiians died off, the ‘oo and the mamo became extinct, human and songbird populations alike were devastated by loss of habitat (sandalwood forests) and food sources (“Cane fields soon replaced taro patches”) and introduced diseases.

In all fairness, Vowell reminds us that, while the “mikanele” banned hula and surfing, and, along with other haoles, they gained control of most of the natives’ land. They also translated and published the Bible and taught the kanaka maoli how to read and write, resulting in a literacy rate of 75 percent by 1863. By then, however, most of the damage that might have been prevented by education had been done, courtesy of the Great Mahele, the Kuleana Act, and a Bill of Rights that disenfranchised Native Hawaiians and non-white immigrant laborers.

It is at this historical juncture that Unfamiliar Fishes takes a murky turn. “I’m not trying to excuse the racial imbalance of land ownership in Hawaii–that’s always going to be upsetting,” Vowell writes with jaw-dropping understatement. “I’m simply pointing out that to the haoles the acquisition of property had a deeper meaning than simple greed,” she adds, referring to the Puritan mission to go forth and subdue the earth. Still, the scions of missionaries and merchants also seized a kingdom and did all right for themselves. And Vowell sounds a bit like a missionary herself when she implies that King David Kalakaua’s bad behavior justified the stripping of his power by the whites, even though his people loved him for restoring their culture and demonstrably preferred their monarchy to republican rule. After Liliuokalani’s overthrow, 20,000 Native Hawaiians signed a Congressional petition against US annexation.

Also troubling is that a work that so freely cross-references present and past should overlook the contemporary Hawaiian sovereignty issue, beyond describing Kekuni Blaisdell, an M.D. and tireless advocate for Hawaiian health, as an “independence activist” and one of the “protesters marching on the 50th anniversary of statehood, carrying ‘We Are Not Americans’ signs,” without providing its reasons for doing so. Vowell interviews historian Keanu Sai in the Judicial History Center without mentioning Sai’s own run-in with the Hawaiian judiciary system in 1997 as principal of Perfect Title, a company that declared most titles to Hawaii private property invalid, due to the illegal occupation of the islands by the US.

When asked by her young nephew what Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78,” is about, Vowell shoots back, “It’s about how people like us wrecked this place.” This last-minute flash of responsibility and humility restores the book’s charm; after all, it’s been quite a trip, and this disarming and disingenous tourist has told the truth as she’s seen it, however incomplete.

Mindy Pennybacker’s latest book is Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices (St.Martin’s Press, 2010)