Sarah Vowell is a unique historian. She may be the only historian known as much for her unique speaking voice as she is for her writing. She has been a regular on This American Life, the voice of the daughter on the movie The Increadibles and is the author of six books.
So it is her voice (both actually and literary) that will lead you to love or hate her. To get an idea of her actual voice you can watch the book trailer below. But that will really only matter if you want to listen to the audiobook (which I did.)
The literary voice is another matter. Vowell is a historian for the ADD world. She is thorough, but the book is littered with bunny trails. She writes as much about the process and people she meets while doing research as she does about the topic. So we will hear about the guides on tours and people she meets in libraries. Her nephew Owen pops up frequently in her books because she seems to frequently travel with her sister and nephew. These comments bring a grounding to her work and let the reader really understand her as an author. But if you are more interested in the actual subject than the author, you might not like Sarah Vowell’s books.
In some ways, Unfamiliar Fishes is a sequel her last book. Wordy Shipmates explored the founding of New England and the Pilgrims. Unfamiliar Fishes looks at Hawaii, from its early history to its introduction to the US as a territory. (I actually would have liked to know more about how it became a state.) Much of the colonizing effort in Hawaii was the result of American Missionaries from New England, the children and grandchildren of the subjects of Wordy Shipmates. Vowell has a unique relationship to American Christianity. She is the grandchild of a pastor and while not a practicing Christian, she is fluent in and has great respect for the motivation of Christians and these New Englanders’ in particular. That does not mean she really agrees with them as she will tell you frequently.
As with Wordy Shipmates, there are some places that drag a bit, especially about two-thirds through the book. At that point, it begins to feel a bit repetitive. The history of the overthrow of the Hawaiian government is fascinating and could have been dealt with a bit more thoroughly. She also jumps around a bit in the history of the last few monarchs (and because the names are similar) it can be a bit confusing. I do like the way the book wraps up. But I would have preferred it wrap up with Hawaii becoming a state instead of just being adopted by the US inappropriately.