Ever-clever NPR contributor Vowell (The Wordy Shipmates, 2008, etc.) offers a quick, idiosyncratic account of Hawaii from the time Capt. James Cook was dispatched to the then–Sandwich Islands to the end of the 19th century, when the United States annexed the islands.
The author skips the politics by which Hawaii was admitted to the union in 1959. Within months, James Michener’s blockbuster novel named after the new state became a runaway bestseller. Now, with a Hawaiian-born resident of the White House, Vowell’s nonfiction report is a fine update—short, sweet and personal. She’s especially sharp in her considerations of the baleful effect of imposed religion as missionaries tried to turn happy Polynesians into dour Yankees. Earnest, intrepid advocates embarked for the place where Cook died, hoping to correct the islander’s easygoing—and, in the case of royalty, incestuous—ways. The invading clerics were soon followed by rowdy whalers who rubbed their fellow New Englanders the wrong way. (They were the “unfamiliar fishes” new to Honolulu’s waters). The result was early empire building in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. Annexation and the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch, was a destiny aided, ironically, by powerful Hawaiians. Vowell celebrates the early restoration of the hula, but she skims much of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 20th century. The author presents the views of the islanders as well as the invaders, as she delves into journals and narratives and takes field trips with local guides. Her characteristic light touch is evident throughout.
Lively history and astute sociology make a sprightly chronicle of a gorgeous archipelago and its people.