Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Narrators: Sarah Vowell, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, John Slattery
Length of Audiobook: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of IndieBound):
“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.”
Thoughts: I have been fascinated by Hawaii’s history since I read James Michener’s Hawaii in my pre-blogging days. From the moment the Polynesians set sail to establish a new life on the islands to be called Hawaii, its history has been bound up with various invaders of all types, from other Polynesian neighbors to whalers to missionaries and other explorers. The cultural mish-mash that exists today is a result of this legacy and worthwhile for any historian to explore on one’s own. Sarah Vowell does just that with her focus on the Americanization of Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes.
She presents her research in the form of a narrative, intertwining quotes from direct sources with her own observations made during her journeys to the various local sites on the islands. She does so with a fresh, tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the damage Americans have done to the native culture without pontificating too much. The reader gets a clear picture of what life was like before the missionaries ever set foot on the islands, and a sense of sadness at all that has been lost.
The problem, however, is the fact that those readers who do not have a detailed understanding of Hawaii’s history may struggle with some of what the author is discussing. Unfamiliar Fishes works best as a companion piece to a greater, more in-depth history. Without this prior familiarity and depth of understanding, some of the cultural differences mentioned by Ms. Vowell may unfavorably bias the reader against the message she is actually trying to share. For example, the brief discussion of sister/brother marriages may so appall the reader that the message about its cultural significance is completely lost.
The other problem is the narration itself. While having the actors become a unique voice for the various real-life figures quoted in the book lends credence to the narration and gives it a true documentary-type feel, the author as the primary narrator is not a voice that lends itself well to easy listening. Her self-deprecating manner never lets up, making almost every sentence read sound unintentionally sarcastic, which again diminishes the message she is trying to make. Her voice is rather high-pitched, whiny and not necessarily soothing to the ear. The story she is telling is fascinating enough to hold any listener’s attention, but there are times where Ms. Vowell’s voice is a bit unnerving and detrimental to the material.
Beautifully told, Unfamiliar Fishes is well worth reading to get a better insight into Hawaii’s struggle for autonomy against a country that was flexing its expansionary claws. Like most of history and one culture overpowering another, it is a tragic story that leaves the reader with a better understanding of and appreciation for the Hawaiian culture. Unfortunately, it is a story that is best read and not listened to via audio.