Sarah Vowell previewed Unfamiliar Fishes, her recent history of the American annexation of Hawaii, at the Public Library Association Conference in Portland, Oregon, in March 2010. I was among a thousand or so attendees who remained for the closing ceremony, for which Vowell was the key speaker. I remember at the time that there was among the audience a feeling of disappointment. Many of the librarians had hoped to end the conference with either inspiration or laughter. Vowell, however, was serious about history and was not there to simply entertain. She read from her work in progress, recounted her research, and expressed more sympathy for all the parties in her narrative than I expected. I don't know how many left wanting to read Unfamiliar Fishes once it was available, but I did.
I was predisposed to like Vowell as I had enjoyed audiobooks of Wordy Shipmates and Partly Cloudy Patriot. Because she read these books herself, I was familiar with her voice. So my reading the hardbound version of Unfamiliar Fishes was a new experience for me. I wondered before starting whether I would mentally recognize or generate her voice as my eyes passed over the words. I think I did hear her at first but then the story itself took over, and I became mostly involved the action and the characters. Perhaps her pithy statements jump out more in audio, but I think Vowell was more restrained in voicing her judgments than in previous works. I am sure I laughed less and learned more.
How the independent nation of Hawaii became first a territory and then a state in the United States is not a story many Americans probably know. Many of the details would probably not pass the approval of the Texas School Book censors, which is precisely why the book should be read and debated. Perhaps Barrack Obama was not born in the United States because Hawaii is not a legal state.
Readers will enjoy learning about many unusual people, including Hawaiian monarchs, missionaries, plantation owners, and ship captains. The challenge for the reader is figuring out the pronunciation of Hawaiian words. Maybe the audiobook is the preferred medium for Unfamiliar Fishes. I'd love to hear the many lyrical names, such as Liliuokalani and Kamehameha.
Vowell, Sarah. Unfamiliar Fishes. Riverhead Books, 2011. ISBN 9781594487873.