Sarah Vowell breathes life into history. As she did in her well-received The Wordy Shipmates (2008), Vowell brings a distinctive voice—ironic, occasionally acerbic—to Unfamiliar Fishes, an account of how America’s “Manifest Destiny” crossed the Pacific and came to encompass Hawaii. Like Bill Bryson (otherwise a very different writer),Vowell mixes elements of memoir and travel writing, along with a conversational style, to create a book that will never allow the reader to think of Hawaii as quite the same paradise again.
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How do you see this book in relation to The Wordy Shipmates?
I see it as a sequel of sorts. Both books are preoccupied with churchy New Englanders, with The Wordy Shipmates telling the story of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts circa 1630 and this new one shoving off when New England missionaries set sail from Boston Harbor in 1819 to Christianize the Hawaiians. Both books explore my fascination with the bookishness of New England Protestants. They were not a perfect people, nor were they even particularly likable much of the time, but I do admire their literary bent and the way they prize learning and education above almost everything except for piety … I was brought up in that tradition and though I’m not religious anymore I think my studious, biblical background has a lot to do with me becoming a writer.
What sparked your interest in Hawaii?
I went to Honolulu to see the [USS] Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. I simply swung by Iolani Palace, home of the last Hawaiian monarchs, because I had some time to kill. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the two sites are related—that Hawaii would not have been an American base the Japanese would bomb if the missionaries’ offspring had not colluded with U.S. Marines to overthrow the Hawaiian queen in 1893 and then handed over the islands to the United States in 1898.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding most Americans have about our 50th state?
Most people picture this nonexistent, barely populated dream world of palm trees swaying in the breeze or something, instead of a real place with real people and problems, as well as an overwhelming number of military installations—the archipelago’s strategic location being the main reason the U.S. annexed Hawaii in the first place. Most of the time I was researching the book, the state was so broke that public schools were closed on Fridays. I mean, Hawaii is obviously a gorgeous place with nice weather, but it still exists in the objective reality of planet Earth.
Was the annexation of Hawaii a betrayal of the American ideal or a reflection of the country’s character? Or both?
Oh, both. There was certainly a lot of public soul searching at the time about that very question. There was a lot of dissent evoking the names of Washington and Jefferson, wondering why a nation founded as a colony rebelling against its colonial overlord would become a colonial overlord. Which sounds fairly high-minded until one digs deeper and notes the racist undercurrent of a lot of anti-imperialist thought—disdain for corralling all these brown islanders into the union.
How would you characterize your recent books? The focus is historical, but there’s a lot more of you in them than there might be in straight history.
I try and write as honestly as I can. To me, that means putting myself in the story. I mean, I’m there, right? But I think my participation also has to do with me being a seeker instead of an expert. I am not of the “write what you know” school. I get interested in something then I light out to discover more. I’m not a historian. I’m a journalist whose subject tends to be history.
Riverhead / March 22, 2011 / 9781594487873 / $25.95