Many think of 1776 as the most defining year of American history, the year we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self-government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as crucial to our nation's identity, a year when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba and then the Philippines, becoming a meddling, self-serving, militaristic international superpower practically overnight.
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état led by the missionaries' sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, if often appalling or tragic, characters. Whalers who will fire cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their god-given right to whores. An incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband. Sugar barons, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaii-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
With Vowell's trademark wry insights and reporting, she sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the 50th state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.
Read by the author a cast that includes Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Music by Michael Giacchino with Grant Lee-Phillips. The score contains excerpts from "Hawai'i Pono'i" (words by David Kalakaua and music by Henri Berger) performed by Grant-Lee Phillips.
Public radio darling Sarah Vowell has written five nonfiction books over the past decade or so, and this latest installment in her personalized People’s History-type study of America’s lesser known political foibles is as charming as the previous four books. Undertaking a study of precisely how Hawaii came to be annexed by the United States in 1898, Vowell draws on a wealth of archival research and oral tradition to craft a comprehensive view of the state’s less than democratic incorporation into our union.
The bulk of the book is narrated by Vowell herself. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of well-known wise-crackers also listed as narrators. These other voices are enlisted only for help with quotations. They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland. The big winner here is Maya Rudolph, whose turn as the deposed Queen Lili’uokalani is completely enchanting. Her bits really stand out as a portrait conveying the majesty and optimistic strength of a monarch in decline. Otherwise, all these imminently recognizable voices conjured up to assist Vowell interrupt the flow of text just long enough for a listener to think, “Hey, that’s Bill Hader!” Then the quotation is over and it’s back to the voice of Vowell.
Oh, what a voice it is. Depending on who you ask, Sarah Vowell’s is the voice that either launched a thousand ships, or sank them. A native of Oklahoma with an extremely nasal voice and a soft lisp on her sibilants, Vowell is most definitely an acquired taste, but absolutely beloved by those who have acquired such a taste. She has been in the audio business in some form or another for quite a long while, and is a genuine expert in matters of the well-timed punch-line and the mysterious art of engrossing story-telling. Vowell is such a fountain of dry wit that it’s tempting to call her a savant. As she maps this singular strand of the American imperial impulse, listeners will be relieved to find that the violent politics of Manifest Destiny are tempered with the grain of salt that is Vowell’s limitless power of comedic contextualization.
Devotees of Vowell can expect that this listen is up to the standard of all her others. Those who have never heard Vowell before will find that Unfamiliar Fishes is as good a place to start as any other. This book does an excellent job of filling in a void glossed over by mainstream accounts of American territorial acquisition. From her explanation of how Hawaii developed a written language to her hilarious description of the self-aggrandizing missionary who undertook to establish Mormonism on the islands, Sarah Vowell once again delivers a uniquely fresh and deeply interesting perspective detailing the highly specific ways in which the history of the United States is in fact not very united. Megan Volpert
"Vowell makes an excellent travelling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek." (
The New York Times Book Review)
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