In September 2011, I went to hear Sarah Vowell speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I stood in the back and laughed as she read her snarky take on the history of Hawaii. I bought the book that night at one of my two favorite bookstores. Yes, I have two favorites.
In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii.
History can be, and is, strange. I’m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about. Hawaii is a state I don’t know much about. I’ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I’m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what’s there.
This isn’t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won’t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I’m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.
By Sarah Vowell