As a contributor to NPR'S This American Life, and with appearances on Jon Stewart and David Letterman, it is no surprise Sarah Vowell has accumulated a legion of fans over the years along with a string of bestsellers. Her most recent book is Unfamiliar Fishes, a history of Hawaii that focuses on the Protestant missionaries who brought religion to Hawaii in 1820, which eventually led to the islands' 1898 American annexation.
My question is: Does anyone who isn't already a big fan of Vowell's thinks this is a very good history book? I liked her Assassination Vacation, but Unfamiliar Fishes sounded like a continuation of The Wordy Shipmates and I had enough of that book during her reading here in Atlanta a few years ago.
In short, Unfamiliar Fishes reads like one big riff on Hawaiian history reminiscent of the “native Hawaian” Ula's (played by Rob Schneider) rant in 50 First Dates (“Okay you haole you think you can come to this island, eat our pineapple, bang our women, and make my sister clean your hotel rooms.”) Coincidentally both the movie and the book pay homage to late Isreal Kamakawiwo'ole's (known more as Iz) rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
Comparing to Unfamiliar Fishes to 50 First Dates may be silly, but the book has a few shortcomings as a history book, especially for an author who has made it her mission to translate history to the masses. It's has structural faults: The book has only one map (but I am a map junkie). The book has no chapters, no subheadings, no index, no chronology of events, and no family tree of the Hawaiian Royal Family (which would have been really helpful). I know it's unfair to criticize a book for what it doesn't have, but if Vowell's impetus to write the book is to educate us why not provide us with a few reading aids? (See Comments)
The Atlanta Journal Constitution labeled Vowell as a “punky historian,” even though Vowell admitted during her Fishes tour stop at the Savannah School of Art & Design (April 5th) that she is not a historian, but a journalist, who in her own words “makes mountains out of mole hills.” In short, she focuses on some minute fact or detail and extrapolates it into something meaningful and funny.
The reason it took me so long to write this review was that I debated whether I wanted to sound like one of those sour despoilers of the popular culture. But inspired by Kathryn Lofton's thoughtful essay about Vowell, and the pitfalls of popularizing history, I just think Vowell fans should demand better (or challenge themselves to read more history). Otherwise, they too will fall prey to the same government slogans and catch phrases that push Americans to go forth and “wreck places” all over the world.
Disclaimer: Riverhead Books provided me a review copy, upon my own request. Thus I felt doubly obligated to write up something about Vowell's new book.