Read Harder #3: Unfamiliar Fishes

1 02 2015

Once you have seen Hawaii, it is hard to shake it off. Hawaii captures the imagination, so foreign and so familiar. We have visited Hawaii twice since moving to Japan, and we will miss the close proximity when we move back to America. So when I needed to choose a book about native peoples for the Read Harder challenge, a book about Hawaii was a no brainer.

I have enjoyed several of Sarah Vowell’s other books, so I was eager to check out Unfamiliar Fishes. In this book, Vowell’s recounts the tumultuous period between the arrival of the first Westerners and the ultimate annexation of Hawaii. The time scale is shockingly short for such an extreme change in circumstance. Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to annexation, only 120 years had passed.

Visiting Hawaii means slowing down; everything seems a bit more relaxed. Which makes the rapid course of events even more amazing. The native Hawaiians are initially cautious but interested in adopting elements of western culture. Despite being a terrible choice for the climate, Hawaiian nobility were soon wearing black, Victorian clothes. Covering up also served the needs of the mail “civilizing” force, Protestant missionaries sent to convert the “heathens.”

In fact, more so than the many sailors that pass through the Hawaiian islands, it is this group of missionaries that shape Hawaii’s course to Americanization. Many arrive with good but imperialist intention. However, after a few years, when support for the organization that sent them wanes, the missionaries must find new lines of work. Many turn to business or politics, shifting their focus into influencing more than just the spiritual life of Hawaii. Descendants of these missionaries will eventually overthrow the monarchy and successfully petition the U.S. to take over.

Vowell’s descriptions of the beautiful places and cultural objects of native Hawaii provide a great sense of what exactly was lost when Hawaiian autonomy was taken away. The wistful writings of Queen Liliuokalani during and after her overthrow and imprisonment are nonetheless gracious and warm.

If you are looking to understand more about Hawaiian history, this is a great opening. My one pet peeve, however, is that the book contains no chapters. It is a 230 page meander through history, which can make it hard to follow at times and difficult to refer back to specific sections for information.

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