Unfamiliar Fishes

Bestselling author Sarah Vowell takes on the story of the Americanization of Hawaii.

Unfamiliar Fishes By Sarah Vowell Riverhead Books 238 pp.

If you want to understand American history, you might want to crack open the Good Book to Acts 16:9, the “high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses” – an “all-purpose ingredient” in America’s perennial tendency toward busybody behavior.

In the verse, the apostle Paul sees a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to “come over” and “help us.” Paul did just that. And so have many generations of Americans, heeding the call to assist others in the world.

In the early 19th century, missionaries thought the residents of a Polynesian kingdom needed a spiritual pick-me-up, and they went across the planet to provide it. Over decades of conflict, Hawaii would lose much: its native religion, its native language, and many of its native people. And it would gain an eventual home in the most powerful country on earth.

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This could become an epic story worthy of a big Hollywood production starring Mel Gibson: Scantily clad natives! Kings and queens! Ships! Did we mention the natives? And, of course, the triumph of the faith.

But author and public-radio star Sarah Vowell, who’d obviously rather curl up with a PBS documentary than a “Braveheart” DVD, refuses to paint her story in lurid Technicolor. Instead, in Unfamiliar Fishes she prefers to look at both the big picture of America’s swift choice to become a colonial power and the small picture of Hawaiians and missionaries meeting in a tiny Polynesian nation.

The Hawaiian story is full of America’s ever-lasting impulse to help the world while bossing it around. We know what’s best when it comes to religion (Christianity), government (democracy is fine, to a point, maybe) and military intervention (do your own thing unless you stand in the way of us doing our own thing).

Considering all this, “Unfamiliar Fishes” could be yet another grim saga of imperialism and suffering. But while she calls herself a “godless heathen” and seems liberal as all get out – she even has a major in French literature – Vowell is too perceptive to produce a cut-and-dried story of pristine natives and evil outsiders.
Instead, she tells “a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga.”

Blessed with an awareness of her own inclination toward smugness, Vowell treats the major players in the story with respect and affection, even the missionaries who putter around the islands with the natural uptightness of their native New England.

She admires the women in particular, especially the gutsy brides who married missionaries and promptly left Massachusetts for a land far away. She writes that they had “good intentions,” even though they were heading uninvited to a place where they’d tell people their faith was wrong.

A place, by the way, where the penalty for a woman who ate with the opposite sex was death, just like it was for nibbling at a coconut, banana or pork: “these women, and the men they married so recklessly, believed they were risking their own lives to spare strangers on the other side of the world from an eternity in hell.”

As for the Hawaiians, many of them embraced American values and Christianity, although they died by the thousands thanks to disease brought by sailors. Hawaii would be buffeted by events far away, like the Gold Rush and Civil War, and eventually remade itself into a mecca for tourists. Its diversity, its past and even its food influenced Hawaii’s most famous son, a boy who’d become president of the United States.

Through it all, Vowell fills the book with witty passages about topics from the “colonial starter kit” to a common New England species known as the “northeastern killjoy” and Theodore Roosevelt’s aversion to what she calls “overcivilized sissies.”

Faithful readers will eventually get to an explanation for the odd “Unfamiliar Fishes” title, but they may be unable to find memorable characters in these pages. Most of the individual Hawaiians and missionaries fail to stick in the memory, and the whole book is a bit ephemeral too. Full of meandering subplots and modern-day analogies, it’s more diverting than mind-altering.

Then again, “Unfamiliar Fishes” never intends to be more than an engaging visit to a time, a place and a people. In that, it succeeds. With her trademark combination of curious mind and tender heart, Vowell remains one of American history’s best tour guides.

Randy Dotinga contributes regularly to the Monitor’s book section.

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