Book Club, History, Nonfiction

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

It’s another Bridge Street Book Club book! Our meeting was small but we covered a great deal in our discussion!


From the publisher marketing:
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Sarah Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathens, to the coup d’état led by the missionaries’ sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, if often appalling or tragic, characters. Whalers who fire 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, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode Aloha ‘Oe serenaded the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I’d go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn’t want it.

Click on this graphic to explore the book page on LibraryThing!


Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates was the first book that I was assigned as a history major that I a, enjoyed, and b, didn’t rush to sell back. It was also rare for a history professor to assign a text that they a, didn’t write themselves, and b, was printed for the masses, not the academics. Her writing has always held my attention as she is both witty and snarky in equal measure in her writing about US history, her specialty. 

While Wordy Shipmates is about the Pilgrims and their settling of New England, Unfamiliar Fishes is about their descendants, missionaries from New England who traveled to Hawaii (The Sandwich Islands at the time) to, well, civilize the savages as they put it. Because it is, apparently, common knowledge to Western missionaries that a region without Christ must be in want of salvation from the good word. 

In Unfamiliar Fishes we get both the history of the Hawaiian islands and the complex lineage of the last queen of Hawaii. Who also wrote a memoir which I would love to read, and who was also an accomplished musician. But when white people set their sights on a place, they do everything they can to a, be in charge, and b, disenfranchise the people who should be in charge. Or depose them. Or both. Seriously, fuck manifest destiny*.

But it wasn’t all bad, really. Just mostly bad. My favorite fun fact (and the book is full of them), is that within 25 years of the arrival of the missionaries, not only did Hawaiian have a written language (previously only oral tradition), but the literacy rate in Hawaii skyrocketed to 75% – that’s higher than the US and Western Europe were at the time (talking mid-1800s here). It is widely believed that the the Hawaiian language would have become extinct after it was outlawed (later by the missionaries descendants, again, see widespread disenfranchisement) if the original missionaries hadn’t written it down. Which they did for the purposes of having the native Hawaiians read the Bible. But still, written language = language survival after same colonizers try to eradicate it.

My biggest gripe with Unfamiliar Fishes is my recurring gripe with Sarah’s books – chapters please! Unfamiliar Fishes is essentially a 238 page essay with few pauses or separations. Thematic organization would have been great as we ping pong back and forth between the US and Hawaii and often jump around the timeline. Normally when a book is structured like this I turn to the audiobook, but alas Sarah reads it herself and she is not my favorite narrator. But overall, I learned a great deal, and we had a lovely discussion at book club!

*Manifest destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, is the idea that the United States is destined – by God, its advocates believed – to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Click this image to visit the book page on my Bookshop page!

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