Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

Book - 2011
Average Rating:
Rate this:
Watch a video

From the bestselling author of The Wordy Shipmates, an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when 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 defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired 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, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.
Publisher: New York : Riverhead Books, 2011.
ISBN: 9781594487873
Characteristics: 238 p. ;,22 cm.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Jul 22, 2019

Reading /listening to this book made my visit to Oahu all the more meaningful. Thoroughly enjoyed touring the Mission Houses, visiting the coral church and cemetery, and Iolani Palace. Vowell provides a well-researched narrative of a shameful period in American history - the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands at the hands of the descendents of the missionaries. The paragraph from the book that sums it all up: In 1899, the British poet Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem "The White Man's Burden" about the new American empire of island colonies of "new-caught, sullen peoples." Four yers earlier, when Kipling visited Washington, D.C. for the first time, he met Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt dragged Kipling to the Smithsonian to show off glass cases full of American Indian artifacts. Kipling later wrote, "I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their contenent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind."

Besides the sand, surf and sun, what do you really know about Hawaii? Sarah Vowell, writer and insightful groupie of American history, uses her characteristic wit and knowledge, as well as the affection she seems to hold for her country’s history (the good and the bad), to convince readers that the US colonization of Hawaii solidified the country’s imperialist position in the world. It is part history of the indigenous people of Hawaii, part that of the missionaries sent from New England to convert and colonize, as well as partly about its eventual take over by the United States. By interweaving her family’s history into the text, along with references to pop culture and Barak Obama, you don’t have to be a US history expert to enjoy it – which I certainly did. (submitted by VP)

ylpladults Aug 23, 2018

This book is about the Americanization of Hawaii and the ruination of the people and their culture. The author treats the subject with dark humor, but I didn’t find the issues funny. I found the narration repetitive and a bit difficult to follow at times. On the positive side, I enjoyed learning about Hawaii’s culture, especially how Hawaii’s history informs today’s Hawaiian people.

Nov 18, 2017

Just here to agree - it's wonderful, she's whip-smart and funny/droll/precise and rather irresistible. Beautifully integrated telling of the tale - sad though it is.

Sep 03, 2016

As one of the blurbs on the back cover stated, Vowell could make a trip to the DMV entertaining. This sad and embarassing story of the US's destruction of a culture was certainly entertaining - and really, when reading about something tragic that is in the past, what can one do but laugh and hope to learn. Hope springs eternal, folks, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. This book was funny, sarcastic, and full of little known (to me) facts and tidbits. I really enjoyed this book and will certainly be reading others of Vowell's.

Jun 14, 2014

wonderfully sassy telling of how Hawaii got colonized

Dec 31, 2013

Hawaiian history told with a dry sense of humor.

Oct 31, 2013

I love Sarah Vowell and the way she presents her knowledge. She has many tidbits of American history and the way (in part) that we shaped the world. She cracks me up and sometimes makes me shake my head at our ability to think we know best.
Her books are always a fun read.

Mar 20, 2013

Just like her photo shows on the cover flaps, Ms Vowell is a no-nonsense researcher. I have visited the islands a few times and now know I will bring her newest book about Hawai'ian history with me next time! She is witty, enjoyably thorough, and brings an interesting viewpoint to American religious, secular and political expansionalsim. If you recognize her voice as Violet in the animated movie 'The Incredibles,' you know the determination. Full points for this adventure into history!

Mar 02, 2013

I listened to the audio version. I wasn't sure about hearing Sarah Vowell's voice for 7 discs, but it grows on you. And you know the inflections are how the author intended. Also, she has some great cameo readers.

Way back when I was in high school, I thought I didn't like history as a subject. I now realize I didn't like the way history was taught. Vowell's history of Hawaii is one of the most entertaining non-fictions books I've ever encountered. Some of the history is grim, and she doesn't skip that. But she keeps it so interesting.

This book is thoroughly researched and even-handed. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was just appalled at some happenings. I most appreciated her penchant for including a broader context for all the anecdotes.

Hearing how much water it takes to grow sugar cane might be very good for my diet.

View All Comments

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability
Harriet_the_Spy Dec 16, 2016

Harriet_the_Spy thinks this title is suitable for 12 years and over


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at Library

To Top