Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.
Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse. Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots? Always, all the time please. This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.
I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why. The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on. I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best. While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation. The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.
Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture. It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering. So in that sense, yea! I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.
Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far. It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines. And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.
All in all… enh. Not awful, but I expected much better.