Sarah Vowell Tackles Hawaii’s Annexation

Unfamiliar FishesThe story of Hawaii’s annexation deserves a wider audience.

I’ve often thought the drama and conflict was tailor made for a Hollywood blockbuster, but I also know Hollywood well enough to bet such an “adaptation” could easily be the worst thing to happen to Hawaii’s history, instead. The reception for “Princess Kaiulani” proves that even the most well-intentioned efforts to tell the story on the big screen can land with a resounding thud.

Maybe the nuance and complexity of island history is too much to tackle in a film, or TV miniseries. That essentially leaves books. History books. Which, let’s face it, don’t exactly get the pulse racing for most people.

But “Unfamiliar Fishes,” a new book by Sarah Vowell, may just be able to bridge the tricky gap between serious history and witty entertainment.

Good National Public Radio listener that I am (albeit mostly via downloads rather than live broadcasts these days), I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Vowell, whom most know through her droll, pithy stories on “This American Life.” She’s a great storyteller, who can mix deep and poignant observations of the human condition with random pop culture references.

She’s also an author, but I’m sad to say that it’s my wife that’s devoured her written catalog, and loved it. I’ve only gotten as far as putting “Radio On: A Listener’s Diary” on my “must read” list… which has pretty much been frozen in time since 2003.

Well, now there’s a new “must read,” because “Unfamiliar Fishes” combines my love of Vowell and my love of Hawaii in one smart, sharp package.

“With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state,” says the publisher, with copy that seems like laser-guided missiles aimed right at the American snarky class. The book is dubbed “an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.”

Here’s an extended cut of her appearance last night on The Daily Show, in which she takes this chapter of Hawaii’s past to the masses in her signature way:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Sarah Vowell Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

I fell even more in love with Vowell after reading her interview with The Onion AV Club. She’s funny, sure, but she knows her stuff, she knows the people she’s writing about (including “churchy New Englanders”), and did a lot of research. She tells The Onion that she spent a lot of time in the archives of the Mission Houses Museum, and goes on to talk about some of the great gems she found.

Among them? Letters between missionaries in Hawaii (many of whom, she notes, went to Punahou School, alma mater of Barack Obama) and friends in Washington, D.C. They quite bluntly discuss strategies on getting Hawaii annexed by the U.S., including using disenfranchisement strategies learned from Jim Crow laws in Mississippi.

“There’s just something so bald and human and disgusting about it that it’s kind of — I won’t say funny, but kind of amusing. It’s like reading the inner thoughts of the Monopoly man. They’re just so baldly powerful rich-white-guy thoughts,” she says. “And because it’s a letter to a childhood friend, it’s just so candid and frank.”

If you want to know what you’re getting with the book, read the whole interview. But definitely get the book.

4 Responses

  1. winnie says:

    I too love Sarah Vowell and I am really looking forward to reading this.

  2. scrivener says:

    She was pretty good on Letterman last week, too. Spoke a bit about what it was like spending all that time here.

  3. ai pohaku says:

    Great post! I can’t wait to read the book.

  4. @websouffle says:

    Loved seeing her on ‘The Daily Show’! I wasn’t even paying attention until my husband pointed out there was a woman talking about Hawaiian history and it has “fish” in the title. I thought he was pulling my leg!!! Now I know. First ebook for my ipad 2 maybe?

    @websouffle at

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