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.
About Sarah VowellSee more books from this Author
Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself...Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from NY Times
But the complex, often sordid tale of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States is ultimately sunk by Ms. Vowell's pontificating, her inability to resist the easy wisecrack and her willingness to do a little annexing of her own...Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from WSJ online
More fatally, though, Unfamiliar Fishes reveals the limitations of Vowell's arch style. It turns out that deadpan casualness may not be a useful stance from which to approach the story of the death of a nation...Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from NPR
In Vowell's nimble hands, it's easy to see what she loves about Hawaii. UNFAMILIAR FISHES is a charming and sophisticated ode to this complicated paradise.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
Those missionaries (on an errand from God) and those sailors (on leave, and with God-awful behaviour) are at the centre of Sarah Vowell’s idiosyncratic island narrative, a brisk and sometimes beguiling little volume...Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from Globe and Mail
So what does she want from us? She wants us to drop our native credulity, no matter how endearing, how childlike it may be. She wants us to see that the annexation of Hawaii rests on shaky legal and moral grounds.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from LA Times
Although Unfamiliar Fishes could use a little more of Vowell's voice peppered throughout some of the long stretches of history and reporting, her brainy wit and savvy cultural references keep the book from seeming like homework.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
...never intends to be more than an engaging visit to a time, a place and a people. In that, it succeeds. With her trademark combination of curious mind and tender heart, Vowell remains one of American history’s best tour guides.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
But that same editor also taught me about the value of the "nut graf," the paragraph that tells you what the story is about and why it matters. "Unfamiliar Fishes" could have used a nut graf to help pull together this wide-ranging school of fishes.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
...this is a book aimed at a wide audience, and Vowell tells a good tale. Forgive her journalistic excesses, consider her shrewd observations, and enjoy her comic turns of phrase.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
It’s easy to see why she was attracted to this project, where there are no clear villains or heroes, just two worlds colliding to create a third...In her blunt, pithy way, Vowell shows us around that world and lets us draw our own conclusions.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes
Vowell isn’t your traditional historian. You won’t find footnotes or academic attempts at thoroughness in her books. She’s more like the smart, sharp-tongued tour guide you wish you had at your side the last time you went to a major museum.Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from National Post arts
An aggregated and normalized score based on 393 user ratings from iDreamBooks & iTunes