In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell heads to the shores of Hawaii, following the missionary impulses that once sought to save New England for God. Far from a pretext for a beach vacation, her chronicle of the Westernization and annexation of the eventual 50th state is unusually dark, even for an author unafraid to tackle genocide and religious persecution with jokes.
Tempting treasures of spiritual and financial promise, the Hawaiian Islands resisted the pull of manifest destiny for centuries. The violent, quarrelsome royal family, the House of Kamehameha commissioned popular songs to honor their fertility, and openly practiced incest into the 19th century. Still, when descendants of the original Puritans arrived, they did so with explicit instructions to maintain the status quo. As Westerners gained a foothold, though, religious leaders crossed into the secular realm and forced through a series of political initiatives, like the private sale of land, which disempowered the native population. In Vowell’s telling, the last ruling monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, wasn’t so much forced into imprisonment and exile as bewildered into it in the same year the American flag went up over the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba—but those were foreign countries first, while Hawaii’s annexation was authored by a group of American and European merchants, calling themselves the Committee Of Safety.
Vowell contends that native Hawaiian culture was one of the casualties of annexation, and her evocation of practices like taro cultivation and the hula, which have largely lost their symbolic weight, is respectful but lacks her usual flair. Even when Vowell rides into grimmest moral territory, she salts her historical accounts with plenty of humor to make those charges go down easier, and her insights into Hawaiian history often draw their shock value from how little-known the crimes against its inhabitants have been. But delivering all that information, exquisitely researched as it is, leaves little room for her trademark leavening. Unfamiliar Fishes searches in vain for a lighter counterpoint to the destruction of a kingdom; not even the most glorious volcano vista can put her off her moral march.
That level of outrage leaves Vowell’s voice drained when it comes to assigning fault to the forces that yanked Liliuokalani from her last symbolic power. Vowell creeps toward parallels between the deposed queen and Saddam Hussein in American military history, then between the mélange of cultures pre-annexation and post-annexation product Barack Obama, the “plate-lunch President”—without satisfyingly completing either. Vowell’s abrupt ending hints that she leaves Hawaii feeling as though her presence has only compounded American transgressions there, but if she was ultimately moved beyond drollery, she doesn’t express it very well.