Island in the Sun

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Sarah Vowell and Hawaii seem about as compatible as oil and water. One, a self-described "smart-alecky New Yorker"; the other, a warm and inviting paradise. Even more unlikely is the pairing of stodgy, uppercrust New Englanders and Hawaiian natives. And yet that's the story Vowell has committed to page in her new book, "Unfamiliar Fishes," which details the resulting awkwardness and anxiety that arose when New England missionaries set foot on the islands in 1820.

Vowell is no stranger, either, to New England religious zealots. The frequent "This American Life" commentator and New York Times columnist tackled the story of the original Puritan clan in the 2008 book, "The Wordy Shipmates." But those stories are well-embedded into the minds of young patriots. The history of Hawaii, on the other hand, may not be as well known. In a recent phone interview, Vowell admitted that "Hawaii is still a bit of the foreign country it was." And it seems that this unfamiliarity has shaped not only her personal experience, but her writing as well.

As the snowy shores of New England shift to the happier hills of Honolulu, it seems Vowell's usual tricks of sarcasm and dry wit have also relaxed. When speaking to her on the phone, it was clear that her exposure to Hawaii, while a wonderful learning opportunity, was also problematic. She mentioned that before beginning, she was only marginally aware of the islands' history and "wildly uninformed about the specifics of Hawaiian culture." Like the natives and the New Englanders, Vowell found herself conflicted. Only, unlike in 1820, the effect wasn't forced religious conversion - it was a clash of identities.

Like her "This American Life" compatriots Ira Glass and David Sedaris, Vowell presents herself with sardonic smarts and cynicism. "The things I prize most of all are solitude, self-reliance and irreverence," she said. Yet the "Hawaiian culture is all about the family and reverence" - an attitude anathema to her own. One local noted that children are taught to rinse their belly buttons because it represents the link to one's mother and therefore should be respected. When asked about her belly button, Vowell admitted her mom was the last thing on her mind.

Yet while detailing the exotic rituals, beliefs and history of the Hawaiian culture, Vowell's voice suddenly becomes starkly sensitive and her conclusions appear ambiguous.

But she's justified in treating this narrative with tact and care. The story of Hawaiian annexation, which Vowell deems the 19th century's "orgy of imperialism," is fairly depressing. The missionaries come, enforce Christianity, establish sugar plantations and eventually overthrow the constitutional monarchy in 1893. It's no wonder the humor is scant: Beatings, disease epidemics and coup d'etats are hardly laugh factories. But even if the jokes were plentiful, it's unclear who we'd be laughing at.

Sure, there's the New Englanders. They're an easy target and Vowell spares no expense in her jibes. When describing the men who would overthrow the Queen of Hawaii (Liliuokalani), she remarks that it wouldn't be unfitting to have Randy Newman score the scenes of their glib self-satisfaction.

But the missionaries aren't the only victims. She's quick to emphasize the more sympathetic side of the New Englanders. "One good thing about these missionaries is that, in some ways, they're quite democratic," she explained. For Vowell, there is no clear hero or villain.

"All of this is a kind of gray area where I like to live," she said. And this is where the book succeeds. When she tones down her ridicule, what surfaces is a matured historian who can recognize that history, as she puts it, is a "fascinating tangle." It's a credit to Vowell's extensive research and clever insight that what appears as a simple story of them versus us is a much more nuanced and complex narrative of conflicting identities.

Vowell forces her readers to come to terms with the nastier sides of American history, when she places our nation's founding ideals of democracy and freedom on the chopping block. Vowell realizes that, as adamant believers in liberty, we should identify with the oppressed natives. But Hawaii was also a monarchy, a system contrary to democracy. "It's this whole complicated system, and with my American DNA, it's my knee-jerk reaction to be happy when a monarchy is done, " she said. But in this case, America was the oppressor. Under Vowell's critical gaze, our idealized democratic republic emerges as a nation of hypocrites. She pulls the carpet out from under our nation's complacent feet.

Even though "Unfamiliar Fishes" is the kind of casual read you could find yourself perusing on the beaches of Waikiki, it is also an incisive and sobering commentary of America's contradictory identity. "There are these two parallel lines running through American history: the call for representative government based on the consent of the governed, and territorial expansion," she said. Vowell paints a bleak picture of disillusionment and despair. But she remains optimistic. Despite its turbulent past, Hawaii is still an Elysian ideal.

Perhaps the sunshine has softened Vowell's typical bite, because imperialism has never been so enjoyable.

Tags: SARAH VOWELL, UNFAMILIAR FISHES


Jessica Pena is the lead literature critic.



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