Sarah Vowell’s latest work Unfamiliar Fishes is the history of how missionaries and sailors came to Hawaii, and how that affected Hawaii’s history, ultimately leading to the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Like most of Vowell’s works, she tells this through her perspective, interspersing the historical facts with her personal experiences and tidbits.
Some people love Vowell’s quirky writing style and some people hate it. It helps if you have listened to Sarah Vowell on This American Life or other broadcast, because it’s best to read her humor in her tone of voice. Otherwise, you may find her too dry or brittle to find humorous. Other people who are looking for a purely historical tome are likely to be turned off by Unfamiliar Fishes because it doesn’t follow the typical history book format. If you’re looking for a good historical book on Hawaii, you might dislike the way that Vowell strays from the story into anecdotes, such as her stories about hiking in Hawaii with her nephew.
I have really enjoyed Sarah Vowell’s essay books, especially Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. In these books, Vowell follows a theme but takes on many different topics and interjects a lot of her wry wit and humor. In her last two books, Unfamiliar Fishes and The Wordy Shipmates, she sticks to a tighter topic for the whole book, and it feels like she puts less of her humor and personalization into the book. Unfamiliar Fishes feels a little lost between a personal essay book and a history book, not quite fitting into one nook or the other.
While I enjoyed Unfamiliar Fishes, it took me a while to get into it. It’s an interesting read, but not Sarah Vowell’s best work by far. Personally, I’m hoping that she moves back to her previous style of essay books instead of continuing with the history books.