Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

While NPR personality Sarah Vowell finds America’s 1898 annexation of Hawaii morally shaky, she strives for a balanced history of the takeover that even Grover Cleveland called “a miserable business.”

(Riverhead, $26)

“It’s kind of cute when mainland folks discover that Hawaii’s history is more interesting than they thought it would be,” said Burl Burlingame in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. NPR personality Sarah Vowell “dived right in” for the latest of her glib journeys into America’s back files, and she’s even gotten most of her facts right. From Hiram Bingham’s claim in 1820 that he and his fellow missionaries would take Hawaii in a “bloodless conquest for Christ” through Queen Liliuokalani’s last-ditch plea to President William McKinley to grant Hawaii independence, Vowell also shows “a real talent for juicing dry historical themes.” Better yet, she doesn’t make the past into a contest between heroes and villains in which only one side wins.

Not that Vowell ever shies from argument, said Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times. As in such previous books as The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she seems determined here to shake us out of “our native credulity” so we can see another chapter in U.S. history for what it was. Here, her point is that America’s 1898 annexation of Hawaii was morally shaky, so she highlights how the arrival of missionaries undid the 1810 unification of the islands accomplished by Kamehameha the Great, Hawaii’s first king. Between jabs at the U.S. for indulging in “an orgy of imperialism,” she finds room for snarky asides about her high school years. The “tone can be wearying; Vowell’s version of history feels pushed down one’s throat with more vehemence than was ever attached” to the myths she seeks to upend.

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Still, Vowell is “a more thoughtful historian” than she used to be, said Jeff Baker in the Portland Oregonian. Her archness is still “good for a laugh,” as when she likens the initial encounter between Hawaiians and missionaries to “some sort of clunky prequel to Footloose.” But she also strives for historical balance, pointing out that along with smallpox and a sugarcane mono­culture, Americans brought literacy and a less war-like way of life. Grover Cleveland, for one, was no fan of annexation, calling the takeover “a miserable business.” Vowell at least deserves credit for showing that it wasn’t all bad.

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