Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.
Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.
April, TC bookseller and Colfax store manager, loved the book:"Let me begin by saying that I've had little desire to ever visit Hawaii. My Pandora station of choice replays Israel 'Iz' Kamakawiwo'ole so often I've learned to dislike the infamous 'Over the Rainbow' (and will probably never watch The Wizard of Oz again because of it).
But after finishing Sarah Vowell's latest volume on American history, I've loaded up Iz on my phone and am looking at plane tickets.
Unfamiliar Fishes is about Hawaiian history from Captain Cooke to annexation. And Vowell handles it with her usual light and oddly humorous tone. It's like having a lively conversation with a historical text, but with jokes. The story of Westernization/Americanization is never a really pretty or poetic story from the point of view of the subdued, but Vowell is able to give the reader a full hindsight look back at the events that ultimately led to the 'quick"'annexation of Hawaii. And it's told in a fashion that doesn't leave the Hawaiian neophyte (like myself) in the dust.
Vowell lays out for the reader just how a new monarchy is transformed by 'soft power, the process by which one people gets another group of people 'to want what they want'. Captain Cooke landed in 1778, and just over a century later, the island had changed completely; from kapus to Christianity, and from chieftains to sugar kings, Hawaii is a microcosm of the Americanization of America, down to the smallpox and measles.
A good read for fans of pop history, or anyone curious about the only state that can leave the union."
Meet the author THIS SUNDAY at our Historic Lodo store at 3:00 pm.
Free numbered tickets for the booksigning line will be available at 2:00 pm. Seating for the presentation prior to the booksigning is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis to ticketed customers only.