The white whale of imperialism in Unfamiliar Fishes

want what we wanted: everything from constitutional government to Christian salvation. This transition wasn't always opposed or even intentional. The white haoles who came in the beginning represented the extremes of American life. As Vowell notes, the missionaries spread Christianity as effectively as the sailors spread VD. Under western influence, the islands quickly transformed from a place with no word for adultery to a land where the most Hawaiian of traditions---“mischievous mating,” bark cloth skirts, the hula, the indigenous  religion---were outlawed by the Hawaiian monarchy. The sugar plantations created by the sons of missionaries became Hawaii's industry revolution, adding laborers from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines into the melting pot. Vowell doesn’t assign blame to Westerners wanting to capitalize off of the islands or Hawaiians who embraced a culture free of the traditional class systems and strict taboos. Being of Cherokee and Caucasian descent, Vowell sees the legacy of the U.S. as a land of opportunity and destruction. For her, the blending of cultures in a “Hawaiian” meal is “a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed plates in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal.”

Vowell’s history lesson is a black comedy played out with board game simplicity, interesting Trivial Pursuit factoids, and a handful of players with limited motives. What the book lacks in a comprehensive history, it makes up for in brevity and humor, meaning you will actually retain and enjoy much of the content. Unfamiliar Fishes is not a book for tourists wanting an epic James Michener account of the islands or a litany of offenses perpetrated against noble savages. In tracking Hawaiian history from grass huts to skyscrapers, Vowell plots the ongoing story of America.

[image-1]In defiance of the bookshelves of dry historical texts and idealistic accounts of Hawaii she undoubtedly waded through to write this book, her farcical tone underscores the painful absurdities of history that resonate in our modern age. While reading, I couldn’t help but hear Vowell’s distinct voice, which you may recognize as Violet in The Incredibles or from her work on NPR, speaking in my ear like the lovechild of Lisa Simpson and David Sedaris.

At times, Vowell does stray from her focus to explore favorite peculiarities of American-Hawaiian history, such as the comic treacheries of self proclaimed adventurer Walter Murray Gibson or the brave efforts of sailors to secure Hawaiian prostitutes in defiance of missionaries. However, these are all branches in her divergent narrative. The story of Unfamiliar Fishes is like the growth of Hawaii's invasive Banyan trees: myriad branches reach up into the world to come while roots dangle down to anchor themselves in and shape the past, all contributing to a single entity that could grow out of control in the hands of a less experienced landscaper.

Purchase Unfamiliar Fishes and find out more about Sarah Vowell at

Shawn Alff is Creative Loafing's Sex & Love Editor. He is also working on a travel memoir about Oahu and Kauai entitled Haole: A Summer Homeless in Hawaii

1776 was not only the year a bunch of white sons of religious refugees declared independence from England while simultaneously dispossessing what remained of native Americans. It was also the year Captain Cook set sail on a voyage that would lead to the “discovery” of the U.S.’s final and perhaps most American of states: Hawaii.

Little more than two hundred years ago these peaks of a submerged mountain range sticking out of the Pacific like the tips of lush icebergs remained isolated from the tide of modern history. In the two centuries that followed, these volcanic islands quickly transformed from a land of indigenous fishermen waging inter-island conflicts to the launching point of every American war in the East: the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. As such a vital staging point, these Westernized Polynesian islands themselves became the perfect stage, the synecdoche, for American Imperialism.

On the heels of The Wordy Shipmates, which explores how England's puritanical outcasts shaped the New World, bestselling author Sarah Vowell explores a parallel drama of cultural transfusion with a lively new cast of Polynesians, missionaries, and sailors.

The overthrow of Hawaii is often ignored because it wasn't a bloody conquest of weapons, but a cultural dispossession created by “soft power.” Westerners groomed Hawaiians to

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