“Vitality that can never be Killed off”
A Review of
By Sarah Vowell.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Although Sarah Vowell’s name might not be a familiar one, you will likely recognize her voice, AND especially if you are an avid NPR listener. Vowell was a contributing editor for the wildly popular NPR show This American Life for over a decade (1996-2008); she also provided the voice for Violet in the animated Pixar movie The Incredibles. Although she might be most recognized for her distinctive voice, Vowell is also a gifted writer and avowed history buff. She has previously written five books, and in each of them, history plays a significant role. Her sixth book, Unfamiliar Fishes, has recently hit the shelves of bookstores, and it follows in the footsteps of her previous books, crafting in a way, a sort of people’s history of Hawaii that depicts the story of how the island land was colonized by New England missionaries and of the eventual fall of the monarchy and the annexation by the United States. Although its focus is on a different context, the book is an unexpected but fitting follow-up to her 2008 book about the Puritans, The Wordy Shipmates. Several generations after the Puritans settled in New England, their ancestors were sending out missionaries all over the world, including – of course – Hawaii.
Although Vowell uses her trademark cheeky wit to critique the missionary culture and although she is generally sympathetic to the native culture, she is not hesitant to recognize the flaws of the native Hawaiians as well (perhaps most notably, incest). Thus, her telling of Hawaii’s history in all its complexity has a ring of truth to it; she is fascinated by the story of Hawaii and with all the wonder of a curious child, follows it through its many twists and turns. The book’s title is borrowed from a quote from a prominent native scholar of the era, David Malo. Malo’s own life mirrors the complexities of Hawaiian history, growing up as native Hawaiian nobility, but eventually becoming a champion of American culture, who toward the end of his life grew increasing skeptical of American colonialism. He would in these latter years of his life, write:
If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us (138-139).
Vowell is hopeful, however, that although cultures – like that of Hawaiian natives – are consumed, they never disappear. She closes the book with the observation:
[Native Hawaii] can still be found: in the swaying hips of high school students performing hula dances down the hill from David Malo’s grave; in the arms of men rowing an outrigger canoe below the cave where Queen Kaahumanu was born … and everytime two Hawaiians really say hello, touching noses, breathing each other in (233).
Unfamiliar Fishes is engaging, a delightful narrative history of Hawaii’s early modern history, an era that I didn’t know much about before I picked up the book. Throughout, Vowell does a masterful job of relating the history to the culture of present-day Hawaii. My one complaint, and this is more of an editorial one, is that the book is presented as one, gigantic long-winded essay – it is not broken up into chapters, which can make the reading of it feel a bit exhausting. Do not, however, let this discourage you from reading the book; Vowell is a storyteller of the highest order, and keen-sighted social commentator, whose stories, although about long-gone times and places, give us much to reflect upon in our own particular times and places. For instance, as I was writing this review, I got the sad news that today my friend Lisa Samson’s teahouse in Lexington, Kentucky would be closing its doors forever, and I couldn’t help but think of David Malo’s words about bigger fishes eating smaller ones and Vowell’s hope – so poignant in our age of the imperialistic monoculture of globalization – that there are some facets of places and cultures whose vitality is such that they that can never be killed off, only forced underground. Underground, they are kept alive by storytelling only to emerge at some point in the future like a rhizome, stronger and in ten different places. This is my hope and my prayer for the dying of Lisa’s teahouse. And thank you, Sarah Vowell for this reminder.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com