Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell


Audiobook.  Sarah Vowell does it again — history with her wry observations.  This time she writes about Hawai'i from the arrival of 14 missionaries on the Thaddeus in 1820 to the overthrow by their descendents of the Hawai'ian royalty.

She mentions food she encountered, including the loco moco, a hamburger patty topped with gravy and a fried egg, "a dish," she says, "presumably invented to remedy what has always been the hamburger's most obvious defect:  not enough egg." 

When we visited Hawai'i in 2006, I remember encountering mention of the practice of incest among the royalty of Hawai'i in a museum in Honolulu.  The assumption was that the closer the connection between the highest rank of royals, the more concentrated the spiritual power.  As Sarah Vowell points out, this didn't work out very well.  Even if no fatal flaw appeared, like hemophelia in the Romanovs, there were few successful births and their lives were short.

The society of the Hawai'ians was very hierarchical and the royals were much loved.  The rulers' sexuality is openly discussed and celebrated — there is a genre of hula dance honoring royals that praises the genitalia of the person being honored.  She says, "I envy a people who celebrate their leaders' private parts; that they love those leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do.  In the democratic republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn't going to see his name on a ballot again."

When the missionaries arrived, there was no written Hawai'ian language.  The missionaries set about creating one and educating the Hawai'ians using that language.  At some point late in the 1800s the literacy rate of the Hawai'ians was higher than that in the mainland.  Otherwise, of course, the arrival of these outsiders was horrific for them; as is always the case, disease decimated the population and the imposition of Europeans' values overwhelmed their social fabric. The story of the overthrow by the grandsons of the original missionaries of the royal family in 1893 is a chilling one.  

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