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Adventuring, Historicizing, US of A

“Unfamiliar Fishes”: My Hawaiian Travel Guide

Aloha! I’ve been in Hawaii for several days now, and in typical Fleeman Family form (and much to the chagrin of my brother) we spent a good portion of our time in MUSEUMS.

I’ll blog more about those soon, but I wanted to post a quickie about my vacation pre-read: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.

The book looks at Hawaii in the 19th century, from the uniting of the islands under Kamehameha I to American annexation. In Sarah Vowell form, the book switches between surveying the history and describing her visits to historical sites. In other words, the ultimate travel guide.

Unfortunately, most of her book takes place on Oahu, and we are spending the week on the Big Island. That does not, however, mean that reading this on the plane was not a valuable exercise. It gave context for the sites we’ve visited, and has helped to fill in the holes in exhibits and tours. It also provided the answers to several clues in the airplane crossword puzzle. All useful tidbits.

Vowell particularly focuses on the missionaries and their children. The missionaries came over determined to bring religion to the godless heathens; their descendents remained determined to bring American government in to support their economic interests. In either case, a terrible deal for the native Hawaiians.

One of my favorite things about this book is Vowell’s personable approach to the complicated ethical nuances of the missionaries:

“But I can’t deny the guts of Lucy Thurston and the other brides. Nor do I question their good intentions. Sure, all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is—a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong. But it’s worth remembering that 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.”

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell speaking. By Tammy Lo (tammylo) (Flickr)

If this passage seems to diminish the negative impact of the missionaries fear not – basically the entire book is about the destruction of Hawaiian autonomy via the outsiders. But it does highlight the complexity of these individuals: in modern-day, these might be the kids signing up for the Peace Corps or Teach for America. It almost makes you wonder how history will view the actions of today’s do-gooders, and serves as a historically-based reality check.

She sprinkles similar insights throughout the books. As I post about some of the places we saw, I’ll reference her from time to time.

Also, I own two copies (having a favorite author can make for some replicate birthday presents!) so if you want to borrow it holler 🙂

(I also own several of her other books – HIGHLY recommended)



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