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Unfamiliar Fishes
by Sarah Vowell


Overview - From the bestselling author of "The Wordy Shipmates" comes an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn. With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the emblematic and exceptional history of the 50th state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.  Read more...

 
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More About Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
 
 
 
Overview

From the bestselling author of "The Wordy Shipmates" comes an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn. With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the emblematic and exceptional history of the 50th state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9781594487873
  • ISBN-10: 1594487871
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • Publish Date: March 2011
  • Page Count: 238
  • Reading Level: Ages 18-UP

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Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2010-12-20
  • Reviewer: Staff

Recounting the brief, remarkable history of a unified and independent Hawaii, Vowell, a public radio star and bestselling author (The Wordy Shipmates), retraces the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England. In her usual wry tone, Vowell brings out the ironies of their efforts: while the missionaries tried to prevent prostitution with seamen and the resulting deadly diseases, the natives believed it was the missionaries who would kill them: "they will pray us all to death." Along the way, and with the best of intentions, the missionaries eradicated an environmentally friendly, laid-back native culture (although the Hawaiians did have taboos against women sharing a table with men, upon penalty of death, and a reverence for "royal incest"). Freely admitting her own prejudices, Vowell gives contemporary relevance to the past as she weaves in, for instance, Obama's boyhood memories. Outrageous and wise-cracking, educational but never dry, this book is a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the U.S.'s most unusual state and its unanticipated twists on the familiar story of Americanization. (Mar.)

 
BookPage Reviews

Highlights from Hawaiian history

Sarah Vowell’s subversive wit and heady take on history are well known from her previous best-sellers such as The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, as well as her work on Public Radio International’s “This American Life.” Her latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, delivers a romp through Hawaiian history beginning in 1819. The New England missionaries who arrived that year were some of the first “unfamiliar fishes” to come ashore bringing visions of change for the islands—welcome or not. “Hawaiians,” she tells us, “have a word for all the pasty-faced explorers, Bible thumpers, whalers, tycoons, con men, soldiers and vacationers” who disrespect their culture: haole.


Vowell writes with characteristic straightforwardness in describing one such haole, Walter Murray Gibson, who came to the islands in the 1860s with various schemes designed to spread Mormonism and immortalize himself. At 21, as a recently widowed father of three, he wrote, “I wanted to fly on the wings of the wind toward the rising sun.” Vowell translates: “Which is a poetic way of saying he ditched his kids with his dead wife’s relatives and lit out on a life of adventure.”


There are many colorful characters throughout the book—King Kamehameha the Great, Henry Obookiah, Princess Nahi’ena—but one of the most fascinating is Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian queen, who traveled to America to appeal directly to Congress not to annex her country. Though fighting to stay queen of a sovereign nation, she visited George Washington’s tomb, writing in her memoirs admiringly about “that great man who assisted at the birth of the nation which has grown to be so great.”


Liliuokalani was the last graduate of Hawaii’s royal school, a place designed to Americanize the royal children. Another school established for the children of missionaries became a world-class institution that counts our current president as an alumnus. “I wonder,” Vowell muses, “what Liliuokalani might have thought witnessing President Obama’s inauguration when the marching band from Punahou School, his alma mater (and that of her enemies), would serenade the new president by playing a song she had written, ‘Aloha ’Oe.’ ”


With observations like these, Unfamiliar Fishes will help readers appreciate our beautiful 50th state like never before.



 

 
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