Monday, April 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

I've long been a fan of Sarah Vowell, and my girl crush was only deepened by her turn at Violet in "The Incredibles." I've had the pleasure of hearing her read a few times. She was in town to read this Saturday, but I didn't make it to the book store.

I was thrilled when I heard that she had a new book coming out - Unfamiliar Fishes. I pre-ordered it through Kindle and started reading it as soon as it downloaded to my iPhone. (I don't actually have a Kindle - yet.)

I was disappointed in her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, which was dry and hard to read, especially compared to Assassination Vacation, which was a light-hearted romp through the odd topic of presidential assassinations. So I had great hopes that this new book would be a return to Vowell at her best.

And while it is world's better than The Wordy Shipmates, this new book falls short of Assassination Vacation.

The topic is fascinating: the arrival of New England missionaries in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. But there isn't as much room for humor. The clash of the two cultures was inevitable and had mixed results.

On the one hand, the missionaries managed the incredible task of creating a written version of the strictly oral Hawaiian language. They then translated books into Hawaiian and taught the natives to read. Within decades of the missionaries' arrival, Hawaii had a literacy rate of 80 percent, higher than that of the United States.

But while the Americans were educating the Hawaiians, they were spreading disease and wiping out the native culture. By converting the natives to Christianity, they encouraged them to turn their backs on native culture and tradition - such as their own religion and the hula. They had particular success with the children of the ruling families. As the elders died out, the Christian-educated children took over, changing the culture even further.

It's an interesting book and an interesting story. And it's made me want to go to Hawaii, but not for the beaches and surfing. I want to visit the historical markers and locations that Vowell describes.

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