Growing up in Honolulu, my schoolmates and I painted faux tapa cloth of unbleached muslin and helped thatch a hut with pili grass. We studied different kinds of lava in earth sciences and wrote reports on each of the Hawaiian kings and queens. There were field trips to Queen Emma’s summer palace and to Kawaiaha’o church. “This church was built of love,” the docent told us. “No!” our teacher whispered. “Missionaries built this church in 1842 out of coral harvested from the reef.” My school, Punahou, had been founded by those missionaries to educate their children, and the exquisite grounds had been the gift of the royal family, which in turn married into missionary families. My education mixed Hawaiian history with weekly required chapel, Hawaiian myths with Christian ethics: seafaring Polynesia and Congregationalist Christianity.
When did New England and Hawaiian cultures mix? What happened when Western imperialism met tribal feudalism? How did missionaries set about winning the minds and hearts and lands of the Hawaiian kings? Sarah Vowell’s breezy history, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” attempts to answer these questions and to shed some light on the cultural complexities of Hawaii today. In many ways this project follows naturally from Vowell’s previous bestseller, “The Wordy Shipmates.” That book dealt with New England Puritans’ arrival in the New World. “Unfamiliar Fishes” describes the starchy descendants of these Protestant divines and their own journey to spread the gospel by converting idol worshippers in the Pacific.
Brief but discursive, “Unfamiliar Fishes” takes the reader on a guided tour of cultural encounters: Captain Cook’s unfortunate end; Henry Opukaha’ia’s journey from Hawaii to Connecticut to train as a missionary; the voyage of the Thurstons, the Bishops, the Binghams and other missionaries to Hawaii. Vowell tells of the missionary wives’ sewing circle as they stitched a cambric gown to cover Queen Ka’ahumanu, the translation and publication of the Bible in Hawaiian, the breaking of ancient taboos, the abandonment of royal polygamy. Vowell writes of the ecological disaster of the sandalwood trade, the annexation of the islands by the U.S. government, the establishment of sugar plantations and the importation of Chinese laborers to work on them. She tells of growing dependence on Western luxuries by the Hawaiian ruling class, and of the islands’ increasing strategic importance to controlling the Pacific. Vowell touches on many lives and multiple events.
Throughout her narrative, she speaks of her own journey as a researcher. She discusses her own mixed heritage as a descendant of displaced Cherokees. She writes of the discoveries that disturb her, including Hawaiian practices of incest. “I think it’s a little bad,” she admits to a friend. She critiques missionaries at their sanctimonious and self-serving worst. Missionary wife Sybil Bingham’s memoir is “insufferable.” Vowell praises missionaries’ “astonishing aptitude for kinship and public-spirited love.” Her prose is conversational but clever, her anecdotes quirky yet highly crafted: “When the Iolani Palace tour guide mentioned the day the Hawaiian flag on the palace grounds was lowered and the American flag went up, she looked like she was going to cry.” It’s the kind of writing performed so well on National Public Radio, journalism as human interest, history as found poetry, monologue casting a spell of public intimacy.
The narrative wears thin where casual turns cute and cute threatens to turn glib. “To a godless heathen like me,” Vowell confides, “there’s not much difference between Jehovah and Ku (except that once a year the Hawaiian god of war actually takes time off).” The missionaries’ ship is “crappy.” Their beach-front settlements are “a lame location for doing oodles of laundry by hand.” Passages like these call attention to Vowell as narrator, turning the reader away from missionaries or rain forest or Hawaiian kings. The result is a story built with attitude and healthy skepticism. You might miss other notes — tenderness or wonder or elegy — but this book has speed.
Vowell is a natural cartoonist. Iao Valley becomes a “cool, verdant retreat . . . one of the most glorious places in the Hawaiian Islands, which is saying something. A clear creek ambles beside a skinny peak, the Iao Needle. . . . I might describe the Needle as adorable, though apparently the ancients regarded it as the phallic stone of Kanaloa, the god of the underworld.” What’s lacking here is a sense of beauty or mystery. We get Vowell’s assessment of the valley and her opinion of the needle without a direct description of the place itself. Vowell stands right in front of us, blocking the view.
By the same token, an aggressively casual structure limits the narrative. “Unfamiliar Fishes” is a big gulp of a book, printed as an extended essay. Lacking section or chapter breaks, Vowell’s quirky history lurches from one anecdote to the next. These are often entertaining, but in the aggregate they begin to sound the same, veering toward stand-up and a shaggy dog story — more David Sedaris than David McCullough. But 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. If you feel compelled after reading to journey to the Bishop Museum or devour the journals of Captain Cook or see some real hula, so much the better.
By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead. 238 pp. $25.95