Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Sarah Vowell is fun to watch as a writer.  She has consistently had interesting things to say and said them in a unique voice. Her personal essays have always been brilliant, and watching her develop the techniques to keep that intimate tone while extending her work to a book has been exciting and enlightening.  Her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, marks another point in that evolution.  It is a also a fascinating, readable study of the Hawaiian monarchy from Captain Cook’s time until the islands became a United States territory in the Spanish American War.

When I read The Wordy Shipmates I thought it was somewhat unanchored and wandering.  I thought more attention to a theme would tie the book together more.  Unfamiliar Fishes doesn’t have this problem, though it is superficially similar in structure.  The difference is a mastery of tone and narrative voice; this is another story about how people’s ideals of how to live and the reality of a government of people collide.  The difference is that Vowell ties the book together with her personality, nerdy love of history, compassion for people, and personal history.

Mixing history with one’s own life and personality is beyond difficult.  Put too much of yourself, or the wrong parts of yourself, into the story and you come across as condescending or arrogant.  Put too little of your feelings into it, and you can come off as a smartass or dilettante.  Vowell gets the tone perfect here, after perhaps finding her way in Shipmates.

With that tone, Fishes takes a leisurely, deep look at Hawaii and how it collided with Western Civilization, starting with the missionaries, then the capitalists, and finally the soldiers.  It’s a sad story, really, and while Vowell has certainly picked a side, she remembers that all the players are human beings.  She consistently reminds the reader as well.

It’s a very personal kind of history, and hearing it told well and felt deeply is well worth the time.

Strongly recommended.

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