Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Can you tell I'm getting ready for a quarterly brown bag luncheon for the library staff? My reading is veering away from mysteries for a while. I know. As much as I love them, I can't go in and talk about fifteen mysteries. I need to talk about a few other books as well. And, Sarah Vowell's nonfiction is always interesting. She's covering her version of Hawaiian history in Unfamiliar Fishes.

I've read five of Vowell's six books. She always does a great deal of research, and then attacks a subject from an unusual viewpoint. In this case, she looks at the changes that took place in Hawaii after New England missionaries came in 1820. In the forty-three years they were there, they introduced a written language, brought the literacy rate to over seventy percent, built schools and churches, and helped to change the government.  However, not all the changes that came about were positive, including some of the governmental changes. Much of the native population, as with the Native Americans, were wiped out by smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought by the missionaries and sailors. The islands became ports for the whaling industry, and, eventually, after white men took over the government and land, the islands became home for American military bases. As a person who is part Cherokee, Vowell felt a kinship with the Hawaiians, who lost so much of their culture, their history, and control of their own land.

Sarah Vowell's latest book is not a happy book, although she's always witty in pointing out flaws in the way we view history. Take her comment about the Hawaiian war god, Ku. He may have been overthrown, but she pointed out, "Ku's new digs, the naval base at Pearl Harbor."

It's also not an easy book to read, with all of the detail about the missionaries from New England, and the history of their zeal. However, Sarah Vowell's books are always thought-provoking. Unfamiliar Fishes certainly provides a different view of the islands that seem like paradise to so many of us. Those islands were paradise to Hawaiians long before Americans wrested control from the native people. It's a fascinating, uncomfortable book to read.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. Penguin Group (USA). ©2011. ISBN 9781594487873 (hardcover), 256p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sounds like a complex but interesting read. Thanks for sharing it with us, Lesa!

I had to smile at the thought of you bringing 15 mysteries to the brown bag luncheon. :)

Jen said...

We have such a history of bullying, don't we?

I heard Sarah Vowell speak about this book earlier this year. Not overwhelmed by her like a lot of people seem to be, but it was definitely an interesting, and as you say Lesa - thought provoking, speech.

Lesa said...

Well, that would certainly be the easiest way to do the brown bag luncheon, Elizabeth. I could certainly take 15 mysteries. (grin)

It is an interesting book.

Lesa said...

We do have a history of bullying, you're right, Jen.

I've never heard Sarah Vowell speak, so I don't know if I'd be impressed. But, I've been impressed with her research for her books. And, one of my co-workers in Florida worked with her in a summer job in college. Snatched a book right out of my hands one night at dinner because she recognized Sarah's picture on the back of an early book, and didn't know she was writing.