FISHY Vowell has a knack for nailing the ways human rottenness proceeds from good intentions.
Unfamiliar Fishes is about what happened when a small group of Protestant missionaries sailed from Boston Harbor in 1819 intending to save the souls of the brown people Captain James Cook had encountered on Hawaii (or the Sandwich Islands, as he called them). It's Sarah Vowell's third book about US history, following The Wordy Shipmates (Puritans gone wild in 17th-century New England) and Assassination Vacation (presidents getting bumped off). So her career as an amateur historian is becoming more familiar than her role as long-time contributor/essayist for Public Radio International's This American Life.
Although Vowell's on-air and in-print essays are droll, self-contained insights into pop culture (e.g., a surprisingly interesting 10-minute riff on Tom Cruise), her books tend to be rambling and oddly organized. She plops herself in and then out of the story as a first-person narrator, and she doesn't use chapter headings or straight chronology. And in the case of Fishes, if you're unfamiliar with the Hawaiian language (or maybe suffer from ADD), you might find it useful to keep notes, particularly since you'll run into a lot of proper names that look like Kalanimota or Kalanikupuli or Kauikeaouli or Kalakaua.
Despite these bumps, Vowell is meticulous in her research. She is also the least didactic teacher of history in history, and of course the book is inflected with her bone-dry delivery and eye for offbeat particulars that you don't see in the daily press. In Hawaii, belly buttons and private parts signify past and future familial connections, for instance. Or, more representative of Vowell's fundamental curiosity about people's rottenness to one another: when whites wanted to limit native Hawaiians' voting rights in the 1890s, they looked to post-Reconstruction Mississippi for pointers.
But rottenness can spring from good intentions. Hawaii has a written language because those missionaries insisted that native converts be able to read the Bible. From having no written language in 1820, 75 percent of Hawaiians could, 43 years later, read and write in their own language. (The US literacy rate by then was about 40 percent, that including slaves in the South.)
Besides the remarkable speed with which Hawaii became bookish, demographic change is striking, and Vowell presents numbers without editorializing. In 1778, when Captain Cook came ashore, there were an estimated 300,000 native Hawaiians. The 1890 census indicated 34,436 natives. The arrival of sugar plantations attracted immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines. In 1876, Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians made up nearly 90 percent of the population; Asians made up just 4.5 percent. By 1900, Asians were nearly 57 percent of the population; Hawaiians, at 26 percent, had become a minority.
The missionary influence on Hawaii was offset, to an extent, by all the sailors swarming about on break, manifesting "America's schizophrenic divide — Bible thumping prudes and sailors on leave." She likens this split to a Waikiki conference center hosting "the Values Voter Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo — for forty years." In Fishes, she often leaves the best deadpanning to the characters themselves. One minister, complaining about the culture clash, wrote, "It has been said that the interests of the mission, and the interests of commerce, were so diverse, or opposite, that they could not flourish together." Just another fillip in Vowell's ongoing informal history of American Empire.
SARAH VOWELL | First Unitarian Church, 3 Church St, Cambridge | March 25 @ 7 pm | $5 | Harvard Book Store event: 617.661.1515