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When I’m lucky enough to be near the ocean on warm days one of my favorite things to do is watch the waves. I know that sounds wildly, somebody-hold-me-back crazy, but it’s true. Sometimes a surfer appears in the water. If you don’t see them paddle out you can easily convince yourself they must have traveled across the seas via surf board just to ride a few New Jersey waves. And where in your mind do they come from? Even though it’s probably not possible, my little fantasy usually decides on Hawaii. Because why not?

Having yet to see Hawaii, Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell’s newish book on the state’s relatively recent history, will have to suffice for now. If watching the waves is like a brain massage, then reading Vowell is often an amusing brain tickle, a way to say “I know you’re there and will feed you soon now hush”. She’s a smart historian who can write about this country’s uneven social and political history with tangible finesse, looping facts and anecdotes through each other with more ease than a chorus dancer breaking into jazz hands.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Vowell take us back to a time before the first American missionaries arrived. When incestuous royal families ruled with a code of conduct known as kapu, which translates to “forbidden”. The kapu included a formal policy that said men and women could not eat together. Another forbade women from eating bananas because the sight of females munching on the phallic fruit was considered offensive to men. Breaking a kapu got many hungry ladies thrown from a cliff.

Hawaii’s story begins long before its recorded history simply because the Hawaiian language didn’t have a written form originally. The missionaries devised one so Hawaiians could read the bible for themselves rather than rely on others’ interpretations.

As Vowell describes it, Hawaii is full of good views with bad massacres. The history of ruling families on different islands battling for supremacy is long, but coverage was short in this book. Instead, Unfamiliar Fishes fast forwards to the arrival of New England missionaries and sloppy sailors as their religion, privatization and STDs proceeded to ravage the Hawaiians and weasel their land out from under them. She focuses on the permanent changes the first small wave of missionaries set into action that, for better or worse, eventually led to annexation.

Speaking of the not so great American tradition of helping those who never asked for help, Vowell frames her opinion on the matter like this:

Into every generation of Americans is born a new crop of buttinskys sniffing out the latest Macedonia that may or may not want their help.

As usual, Vowell includes herself and research process in the text. At one library, she meets a genealogist who traced her roots back to Cooke, a godly white man who whipped Hawaiian school children with rawhide. The interesting thing was that she tracked down an ancestor of one of the beaten children and confirmed a suspicion that there was a long-standing curse on her whole family.

Vowell’s refreshingly concise histories are usually hard to put down, but I never got into this one. At one point, I forgot I was reading it and picked up a different book for a few days. Hawaii’s is a history I’d love to have a deeper understanding of, but I didn’t get that from Unfamiliar Fishes. Missed was her usual spot on humor and bottomless depth of knowledge that can prove even the slightest of anecdotes are significant when they reveal a truth.

The subject of how Hawaii became a state is really interesting, and she does tie some influences back to her previous writing on the puritans. If you enjoyed previous books like The Wordy Shipmates, you’ll probably like it. If you haven’t read Vowell and don’t mind history books in which the author waves from every page, give this one a try. Regardless, check out her archive on This American Life for some reminders that we live in an odd, violent and often funny world.

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