Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

William Zinsser, the late non-fiction writer, editor and teacher, wrote: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me… What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.” Sarah Vowell with “Unfamiliar Fishes,” her study of Hawaii’s fortunes from 1819, when the first boatload of New England missionaries left Boston Harbor for the Sandwich Islands to save the heathen, through to annexation in 1898, illustrates Zinsser’s point. Encouraged by a friend to read Vowell, I had no interest in Hawaii, but “Unfamiliar Fishes” was the volume handed to me. From the first pages I knew I was in for a fun voyage.

A caveat:  Vowell’s style and structure are unconventional. Vowell wears her politics on her sleeve – or perhaps more accurately on her hard drive. As early as page 3 she shows her colors, describing the annexation as “a four-month orgy of imperialism” that gobbled up Puerto Rico and Guam in addition to Hawaii and included the invasion of Cuba that resulted in American control of Guantanamo Bay.  As for the book, there are no chapters, no headings, no index. Instead, Vowell unfolds her narrative over 233 pages with occasional section breaks throughout, weaving into the 19th-century history her personal observations of modern day Hawaii and vignettes about her research.

Nevertheless, the dominant focus is the decades of conflict between the native population with its royal families and the sons of the white missionaries who ultimately “dethroned the Hawaiian queen,” handing Hawaii over to the United States. Indeed, some natives who were on the scene when the first missionaries arrived foresaw the conclusion. Vowell quotes David Malo, the native Hawaiian historian who became a Christian minister and died in 1853:

If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

With warm sympathy she portrays the doomed dynasty of the Kamehamehas, I through V, their passions and also their flaws. With considerably cooler sympathy she tells her tales about the Doles, the Richards, the Binghams, the Gibsons and the Thurstons.

The differences between the “small fishes” and the “large and unfamiliar fishes” were profound. An expansive people comfortable with sensuality vs. a Puritan people pretty much uncomfortable with everything. A deep love of nature for its own sake vs. an attitude that natural resources exist solely to be exploited for the benefit of man. A society willing to ask its members to chip in when monetary resources are needed vs., in Vowell’s words, “upper class white guys…exceedingly touchy about taxation.” Vowell depicts all of the clashes with engaging scenes, often filled with drama and almost always ending in tragedy for the “small fishes.”

Along the way Vowell also shares some surprising (at least for me) information. The first newspaper west of the Rockies was published in Hawaii (though it lasted only one year). The British government supported Hawaiian independence and welcomed Hawaiian royalty to London. A private missionary school, founded in 1839 by Juliette and Amos Cooke (who had not gone to college) so “the children of chiefs will be taught,” was sending its graduates off to Williams and Harvard  by 1868. Punahou became a world-class school and still sends its graduates off to the mainland, including one Barack Obama, who went on to Occidental College and then Harvard Law School.

If you happen to share Vowell’s politics, this book will be a delight. If you happen to lean more to the right, but have been known to happily spend a long evening with a highly opinionated but also highly intelligent friend, someone you consider a worthy adversary who regales you with entertaining and enlightening stories, this book will also be a delight.