Window into a vanished culture

  • Article by: TOM ZELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2011 - 3:32 PM

The history of how Hawaii became a state, and what was lost in the process.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

For those who question the United States' role in regime change in the 21st century, Sarah Vowell, America's favorite punk historian, suggests that it is central to our national identity: It is who we are. Her new book, "Unfamiliar Fishes," tells the story of how Hawaii, a once-sovereign nation, was softly but firmly pushed toward annexation in 1898. In the process, we learn about discovery (by Captain Cook in 1778), trade, religious conversion, epidemics, land confiscation and disenfranchisement: the playbook for destroying a native culture. The corresponding narrative, however, recounts the formation of a contemporary "idealistic multiethnic" society, where people like their mahi-mahi with pineapple, soy sauce, mayonnaise and a side of Spam.

What makes the book sparkle is not Vowell's depiction of the "unfamiliar fishes" of her title, the haoles (foreigners) who come to devour the smaller fry. Her portraits of the cheerless evangelists, who arrived starting in the 1820s, and the conniving planters, who converted the agricultural economy to sugarcane monoculture, help to explain the anger of Hawaii's contemporary separatist movement. It's intelligent and incisive prose, but these 19th-century soul-saving and land-grabbing Americans are much drabber than their ancestors, the literate Massachusetts Bay colonists she devoted herself to in her 2008 book, "The Wordy Shipmates."

Rather, Vowell's attention to the native Hawaiians makes the book come alive. We learn of Kamehameha, "the conqueror of the islands," and of his son, Liholiho, who broke with 1,500 years of tradition by allowing women to dine with men and even to eat pork! Vowell tells the story of Henry Obookiah, an orphan who shipped out on a trading vessel in 1809, reached New Haven, came under the sway of Yale ministers, and penned a set of memoirs describing his religious salvation. This influential volume inspired dozens of New England missionaries to travel to the islands.

This history, moreover, offers us a window into the vanished culture. We learn of the spiritual role the taro root once had, of songs in praise of the royal genitalia, of breathing in one another's air, and of Kamehameha's huge yellow feather shawl in Honolulu's Bishop Museum, constructed of half a million feathers of the now-extinct mamo.

And through it all, the pleasure of Vowell's distinctive voice: her wry humor, her boundless curiosity and her delicious cross-cultural ironies. For instance, during the Golden Age of whaling, Hawaii was a popular recreational stop for ships registered to New England ports. As a result, Hawaii became "a Boston suburb," the culture wars of the seamen and the evangelists playing out 5,000 miles from home. We encounter Jack Lord and Don Ho, Barack Obama and Herman Melville. Ultimately Vowell's view of the state's history is "double-sided," a "painful tale of native loss" evolving into a "a neighborly mishmash" of ethnicities.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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  • Sarah Vowell

  • UNFAMILIAR FISHES

    By: Sarah Vowell.

    Publisher: Riverhead Books, 238 pages, $25.95

    Review: Vowell approaches the history of Hawaii with her wry humor and boundless curiosity.

    Event: 7 p.m. April 4, Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina

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