Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hawaii and American Domination through the eyes of Sarah Vowell

I remember in eighth grade history class, Mr. Vincek warned us that we were going to be studying a sort of dark period of history during the decades following the Civil War, when America started to seize territories across the globe. I don't remember how it was explained to us, but it's a part of American history that we certainly don't like to dwell on much.

Sarah Vowell touched on this towards the beginning of her book on Hawaii, "Unfamiliar Fishes." She notes that during the time was researching the book, America was preparing to go to war in Iraq. The anti-war protestors tried to argue that what we were doing was against American ideals, and that "this isn't who we are." Sarah Vowell's history of American involvement in Hawaii, as she put it, demonstrated that "from time to time, this is exactly who we are."

Her book is very short, only about 200 pages. It outlines a part of history that we generally don't learn about in school: how exactly Hawaii became part of America. She outlines the period of time when American missionaries traveled to Hawaii from New England to bring Christianity and the written word to Hawaii, and how, over time, the interests of their descendants turned more towards the worldly pursuits of sugar farming, which is what led to its being annexed. She explores how its annexation wasn't entirely on the up-and-up (it was done through a joint resolution after failing an up-or-down vote). And in the process, she notes how its culture was nearly destroyed: through the outlawing of the hula dance, the replacement of creation myths with Christian stories, the spread of disease and death of large portions of the native populace, and more.

One thing I disliked about the book was the lack of other voices besides Vowell's. It told the story primarily from the American perspective. I found the apparent passivity of the native Hawaiians baffling. I know she's writing from a historical perspective, but she included brief glimpses of a modern Hawaiian nationalist movement and a few words with experts on Hawaii's past. I would have liked to have seen more of that, but at the same time, the book opened my eyes a lot. Hawaii's story is hardly untold: Vowell included a two-page reccomended reading list of primary and secondary sources. But at the same time, it seems like it's not widely known either. I picked this book up as a Sarah Vowell book, not as a book about Hawaii, so I'm glad that she used some her her fame to shine light on this topic. If I had any myself, I'd like to think that I'd do the same sort of thing.