From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.
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.
With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.
Vowell's voice, familiar to NPR listeners, is something of an acquired taste: wobbly, unpolished, with a little-girl tone that some might find grating. Listening to Vowell read her entire book might be too much of an occasionally good thing, but she effectively tones down her vocal persona by providing a star-studded array of other voices. Reading her own comic tale of the history of Hawaii and its elected kings, fruit barons, and the mixed blessings of manifest destiny, Vowell punctuates her book with brief snatches of guest readers, passing off quotations to the likes of Paul Rudd and John Slattery. Their presence, low-key as it might be, enlivens the book, giving it the feel of dialogue rather than lecture. A Riverhead hardcover.
Another Vowell classic
Like her previous work (especially The Partly Cloudy Patriot and The Wordy Shipmates), Sarah Vowell's unique writing style is incredibly critical of the country she loves. She challenges the arrogant, condescending missionary attitude of early Americans that is still present in today's society. I love how she uses her own experiences at these historic sites while still telling the story of 19th century Americans and Hawaiians. I will read anything Vowell writes and she has yet to disappoint.
So good I immediately bought one of her other books. She has a funny, personal style that presents history in an anecdotal way but she clearly also has the researching chops needed to get the story right. Excellent quick read.
Great book to use in high school history and cultural studies courses.