Book: Unfamiliar Fishes

ALWAYS look through the bargain books at Barnes & Noble!

I was flipping through stacks of surplus Chicken Soup for the Construction Worker’s Soul, Thomas Paine reprints, and Atkins diet cookbooks when I found Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. Bargain-priced at $4.99. Signed by the author. Seriously! Look:


I first became familiar with Sarah Vowell through the radio show This American Life, where her contributions are always succinct, intelligent, and funny. Even when she is dealing with a dark subject, she surprises the audience with her very humanizing humor.

This book covers the role of New England missionaries in the modern development of Hawaii. The British explorer, Captain James Cook, first visited the islands in 1778, and finally in 1779, when he famously died in a beach scuffle with the natives. Hawaii was an independent kingdom, and British protectorate, throughout most of the 1800s, until the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893 by (mostly American) businessmen.

These men included several descendants of the missionaries, who first began to arrive in 1820. Besides the forcible seizure of Hawaiian political control, Vowell shows several other ways the New Englanders drastically affected life on the islands, including social structure, diet, agriculture, land management, and property ownership. As may be expected from an National Public Radio contributor, she has a somewhat “liberal” slant (whatever that is), but she does not fail to show the great good that the Americans brought with them.

The best way to describe the situation is that it was messy and very tangled.

Even though I’m no expert on the interactions between Europeans and American Indians, I think this book is a good case study for how convoluted the interactions between the two groups were, across the board. Perhaps the best thing to take away from the Hawaiian story is that preconceptions about European/native relations (both “liberal” and “conservative”) should be left at the door.

Literacy was one of the greatest contributions that the missionaries made.

The Hawaiian language had never been written before European contact, but the missionaries created a written version, using the latin alphabet, and taught the natives to read and write. Within forty years, Hawaii went from 0% to 75% literacy in their own language, in 1863. In the United States, literacy was 40% (including the slave population) in 1863.


One of my gripes with Unfamiliar Fishes is how completely dismissive it is of Christianity as a whole. Vowell, who explains that her personal context for the Christian experience is rooted in attendance at church when she was younger (presumably having been taken there by her parents), uses simplistic and erroneous versions of Biblical arguments, which the average non-Christian reader will probably take at face value. This tack will also alienate the average Christian layman who is unprepared to read past the straw man and find the usefulness in her main message. It may be worth noting that Christianity is lampooned, but the native religion is not. Nevertheless, this is not a theological book, and Vowell’s approach to theology is really just distracting.


This book is not an academically stringent history (it has only two pages of bibliography, and lacks footnotes/endnotes, and an index). I would describe it generally as pop-history, or as long-form journalism. It is a 230 page dinner party conversation, and as such is absolutely fascinating. I don’t mean to down-play the research that backs up this work. Vowell obviously went to a great deal of effort digging into archives and visiting the key locations of the Hawaii story. Unfamiliar Fishes is a good weekend-read, and a would serve as an excellent stepping-off point for someone interested in studying the roots of American imperial expansion.

I am still a fan of Sarah Vowell, even if she doesn’t understand Christianity, and my only regret with Unfamiliar Fishes is that I didn’t get to meet her when she signed my copy!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Matthew says:

    Actually studying Captain Cook in my History class. How his interactions with the native Hawaiian people led to his treatment of native peoples in the Pacific Northwest. He was very un trusting after Hawaii, for good reason.

    1. Zach Morgan says:

      This book doesn’t go into too much depth about Cook, but if you’ve already learned about him, this would be a good follow up!

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