An interview last month with Sarah Vowell on “The Daily Show” alerted me to the availability of her new book “Unfamiliar Fishes”. I completed this short read about the annexation of Hawaii in a tidy five days.
When we honeymooned in Hawaii a couple of years ago, I sensed a sad aspect to the place: the greasy slackers, the high prices, the cluttered beaches, the struggling aboriginal culture, the besieged native flora and fauna, the suffocating military presence. I admit most of these were greatly amplified in Honolulu’s urban environment. I didn’t find Maui quite so distressing but such things were easy to overlook while swimming in the turquoise surf under perfect weather and backed up by lush green scenery.
The sad aspect of America’s archipelagic paradise resonates throughout Vowell’s book. Her narrative reminds me that Hawaii is a very different state, in terms of its historical perspective, from those on the mainland. For example, it is the only state that used to be an independent kingdom. Vowell writes of how attached some Hawaiians still are to their long-ago deposed monarchy. To them the monarchs are symbols of the islands’ cultural heritage, though the former kingdom’s lame attempts at creating a modern nation-state also laid the foundations of its demise.
Such an attachment to a ruling caste of unelected inbreeds is a bit unhealthy in a modern democracy. At times while I was reading I worried that Vowell would miss this and lapse into a bleeding-heart narrative of gentle savages victimized by big, bad white men. As usual, though, Vowell’s account is more nuanced than that and describes how concern for the royal lineage’s well-being has its roots in certain traditional Hawaiian values.
The fall of independent Hawaii is also a story about the fall of America’s self-image as a repository of republican virtue. In annexing Hawaii, the United States justified its new empire of island possessions by rejecting many of the moral pretenses articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
In “Unfamiliar Fishes” Vowell does somewhat less linking tangible places and things to broader historical themes than she did in her best book, “Assassination Vacation”. If we go back to Hawaii, though, I’ll try harder not to breeze past the museums and historic sites on our way to the beach.