Monday, February 26, 2024

Exploring our Hawaii obsession with comedian Sarah Vowell

I've written quite a bit on my obsession with getting to Hawaii someday. And I've started (but never finished) many times reading James Michener's epic Hawaii. Well, I finally found a better option than spending three months on that tome: hilarious comedian Sarah Vowell's 2011 book Unfamiliar Fishes. Along with being funny, she is a true history scholar with an impressive collection of books authored, including this one on how Hawaii came to be a mishmashed U.S. state. Along with the "lunch plates" that contain a little bit of many cultures, there are plenty of other things imported to Hawaii that make Hawaii Hawaii, such as their famous Banyan trees, which came from India.

It’s only two pages in before Vowell mentions the Brady Bunch, which I firmly believe gives the place a good bit of its allure, after the classic multipart series when the TV family visits Hawaii. What a tourism initiative that was! Vowell says the concrete high rises that starting springing up after 1959 give downtown Honolulu a “Very Brady brutalism.”

Hawaii really became what it is now when the 25th U.S. President William McKinley invaded Spanish-speaking colonies Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and acquired Hawaii, mainly so they could all become bases for attacking other parts of the world when deemed necessary.

Hawaii, after having been annexed to the U.S. in 1898 became a state in 1959, even though there are still many native Hawaiians who think it’s ridiculous to call them Americans, as it kind of is.

Going back to 1776, Vowell details how Hawaiians killed British explorer Captain Cook, who had tried to kidnap the high chief, but not before Cook’s sailors spread venereal diseases left and right to the islanders.

From all this at the promising start of the book, Vowell veers down some arguably uninteresting and sidewinding paths on the early colonizing missionaries. That said, to the credit of and with the help of the missionaries, between 1822 and the end of their operations in 1863, the Hawaiian people … went from having no written language to 75 percent of all Hawaiians learning to read and write in the native language.” It had become one of the most literate places in the world.

Another element of this time had to do with the whale ships based out of New England and elsewhere that were killing thousands of whales for the many resources, including ship oil, that could be harbored from them. Luckily for the whales, they were able to not go completely extinct because “the whole world was about to go ape for fossil fuels” and the “Pennsylvania petroleum boom of the 1860s slowed down sperm whales’ extinction.” This wouldn’t hurt Hawaii’s economy much because sugar cane was filling the gaps.

I’ve only made it through the first half of Unfamiliar Fishes, but I’ll likely return to it because I’m intrigued to see what Vowell finds in Hawaii’s more modern history.

So far, I give the book 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

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