In Unfamiliar Fishes Sarah Vowell brings to life the time in the history of the United States when it transforms into a world power for the first time and begins to most closely resemble the United States we have today.. Set with a Hawaiian backdrop Vowell explores the reality of missionaries and imperialistic conquests at the end of the Spanish-American War.
Vowell accomplishes in her writing a goal I can only hope to dream of achieving. She makes history relatable and interesting while also doing the legwork and primary source research to substantiate the thesis. Vowell’s books are intended to entertain as well as educate so occasionally locating the thesis is not the easiest thing, but here’s the big ideas of this work: the United States as we know it, and particularly the 50th state, show the long-term effects of missionaries and trades people on indigenous populations.
While this work focuses on the missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the sailors who arrived on Hawaii’s shores as part of the whaling and later sugar trades, it is the larger story of the transformation of the archipelago from the time of Kamehameha I to the dethroning of Queen Liliuokalani and the Americanization of those islands. It is not always an easy read, and it’s another example of a work without chapter breaks (and 235 pages), but it is a fascinating piece of our history which is often overlooked in a typical education. So pick it up and learn some things you didn’t know and have a laugh along the way.