REVIEW: Unfamiliar Fishes

Book by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar fishes“You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii,” Michelle Obama famously said about her husband. In her new history of the Pacific islands state, Vowell doesn’t so much seek to understand the U.S. president as the republic he governs. In particular, how the nation’s practice of engaging in foreign wars under dubious pretenses has a history a lot older than many Americans would like to think, and Hawaii is a case in point.

Hawaii is a popular tourist hot spot today, but America’s first interest in the 50th state was religious. Protestant missionaries landed on Big Island in 1820 and some of their achievements are near miraculous: Hawaiians had no written language, and in order to teach through Bible study, missionaries invented a spelling system using the Roman alphabet. Within 40 years, the literacy rate hit 75 per cent.

But Christianity was no match for a more fervent religion: capitalism. American businessmen saw easy money in the islands and subverted the native agriculture for sugar plantations. By 1890, nearly 90 per cent of the land was controlled by foreign interests. The following year, tired of King Kalakaua’s questionable spending and patronage, a group of mostly white businessmen forced the ruler to sign the “Bayonet Constitution,” vastly curtailing royal power. In 1893, they deposed the monarchy entirely, and Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. five years later.

Potentially a dry history, Unfamiliar Fishes is well aided by Vowell’s acid wit. “Nuuanu is another good view with a bad massacre,” she says of some cliffs near Honolulu, while she describes one neighbourhood’s architectural style as “A Very Brady Brutalism.” However, the author often gets too caught up in her own tale: that a segment on the merging of Hawaiian and American laws focusing on a 19th-century land dispute includes references to recent U.S. Supreme Court appointee Sonia Sotomayor, a statue in a Maui park, and Dr. Seuss is a typical digression. Then again, perhaps Vowell is trying to diffuse the harshness of how she now understands her country: that its imperialism is as American as apple pie.

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