‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ is Sarah Vowell’s bestselling book that recounts the fascinating history of the Hawaiian Islands.



For Sarah Vowell, it is no secret that Hawaii is America’s melting pot, where different cultures merge together creating an unusual yet coherent whole. But how did it happen that this once independent kingdom eventually became the 50th state? Trying to find out, Sarah decides to retrace the archipelago’s rich history.

To the sounds of Brother Iz’s famous songs, she wanders the streets slowly unraveling the islands’ past. Hopping from one museum to another, she discovers the old Polynesian ways, studies the nuances of the local language, learns about Hawaii’s royal leaders and desperate-to-civilize-the-heathens missionaries from New England. Everything she does, whether it’s nibbling at her lunch in Waikiki or paying a visit to ‘the haole rich kid school’ – the same Barack Obama proudly calls his alma mater – makes her think, analyze, and contemplate how some people changed the place.


What comes to your mind when you hear the world ‘Hawaii’? Paradise. Flower leis. Ukulele. Grass skirts. Aloha spirit. Tourist-style hula dance. Shave ice. Hawaii Five-0. That ever so popular blue drink. Sandy beaches. Surfing. Malasadas. Oh, and spam! You can’t forget about spam. Now, what doesn’t usually come to your mind is the state’s history. You may be perfectly familiar with it; or you may have no idea who King Kamehameha the Great was. Whatever the case, the archipelago’s past isn’t something you tend to focus your attention on. But, chances are, this will change when you take ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ in your hands.

Sarah Vowell definitely knows how to recount bygone times. She is not your typical writer who bores you with countless dates, names, and not particularly important events. She is more of a guide who gives you a tour of the islands, stopping here and there to explain a few relevant facts. She is quick and straight to the point. What she offers you is the pure essence – summarized report, in which she managed to squeeze almost one hundred years into two hundred and something pages.

Now, her presentation might be somewhat abbreviated, but it definitely doesn’t lack thoroughness. Actually, you may be quite surprised to learn just how much you didn’t know about America’s 50th state. While focusing primarily on the imperialist intentions of the haole missionaries (well ok, they started schools and created the Hawaiian alphabet, so it can’t be denied that they did something good), the narrative is sprinkled with interesting and often revealing snippets regarding the obscene natives, party-loving whalers, and incestuous monarchs. This mixed bag of characters gives you a clearer understanding of what was really happening in the ‘tropical paradise’ during the 19th century. I highly doubt that certain issues Sarah Vowell writes about get even the slightest mention in other history books. But then again, ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ isn’t your regular history non-fiction. It really stands out from the crowd.

This might have something to do with the author herself – an extremely talented person who has the ability to make the most mundane, lifeless, and tedious subject more digestible for an ordinary human being not necessarily interested in the events of the past. Despite being acquainted with Hawaii’s history, she is not an expert and doesn’t even pretend to be. But she cares; and she digs deep. When such attitude is combined with a deliciously wry sense of humour and a ready wit, the result simply must be spectacular. And in this case, it is.

If you try hard, you will probably find a thing or two that maybe should have been written differently. Sure. But, quite honestly, there’s no point in searching for flaws or imperfections. Instead, sit back with a glass of Mai Tai and immerse yourself in this very engaging read. Soon you will be hooked and possibly planning your own journey. Just to discover the real Hawaii.

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