Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes
© 2011 Sarah Vowell
238 pages



For those accustomed to Sarah Vowell's usual approach to history -- one offering contemporary political allusions and biting wit -- Unfamiliar Fishes will seem decidedly straightforward. Her introduction describing 1898 as a perhaps more pivotal year for the United States than 1776 prompted me to think Unfamiliar Fishes would be a platform to criticize current foreign policy, but it truly is a straight history of the American annexation of Hawaii, one which serves as an introduction to Hawaiian history to boot.

Although her narrative begins in 1820, with the arrival of American missionaries keen on saving heathens, Vowell weaves in plenty of background information, starting from the union of the islands under a warlord. From there, Hawaii transforms into a beaten state in barely a half-century, its government taken over by puritans and ruthless industrialists. This is not a straightforward tale of good and evil, however:  savage warlords who oppress women deserve the misery that Puritanism brought, and staggeringly many Hawaiians were culpable in their own slow annexation -- like naive marks attracted to the idea of profit, playing poker with far more devious and ambitious men. Hawaii's history is a half-century of being hustled.

Vowell ends with the annexation of Hawaii at the hands of McKinley and Roosevelt, and revisits her idea of the ideals of 1776 being less important to American history than the greed of 1898.  Her ending chapter, quoting Henry Cabot Lodge's defense of the takeover, is positively chilling, as Lodge dismisses entirely the notion that the United States is a country built on the consent of the governed and defends that with examples from history -- exulting in how the rich and powerful have subdued the less fortunate multitudes time and again.  Class warfare is not a bogeyman dreamed up by Karl Marx.  The book ends on a  sad note, despite Vowell's usual attempts at humor.

Recommended for those curious about the aloha state.

Related:
The Spanish-American War, Albert Marrin

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