Saturday, April 02, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell has found a shtik that works for her -- snarky recountings of parts of American history that reflect badly on us as a people and particularly on the people involved -- and she continues in the established vein of her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, with this year's Unfamiliar Fishes. She's shifted focus from Wordy's New England Pilgrims to Unfamiliar's Hawaiian missionaries, but she's still fascinated by religious loonies coming in by ship to oppress the local people and expand the world of their dour, constricting Protestantism.

(I've previously covered Wordy Shipmates, Vowell's essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and her first book-length essay, Assassination Vacation, which I'd still recommend as the best place to start with Vowell.)

Vowell is clearly a writer who loves doing her research -- Unfamiliar is full of references to time spent in musty archives, and even more full of notes that she'd only find in those archives -- but all of that research is used to bolster the conclusions that she's already arrived at: that history is a pure record of horrors and bad acts, which can be lightened through humor but from which no one comes out looking good. (If she's in any school of history, it's the pessimistic one.) And so Unfamiliar is the record of how white people, primarily Americans, came to the Hawaiian islands, caused the death of a great majority of the inhabitants [1], imposed their exceptionally strict and starchy brand of evangelical Christianity on whoever was left, took all the good land and manipulated the government to get all of the businesses, and then stole the country away entirely as soon as they had the chance.

I like reading Vowell, I really do -- she's got a fun, zippy voice, and her casual command of endless facts is thrilling -- but I always come out of a Vowell volume thinking that I'm supposed to be depressed and remorseful for being a horrible, world-destroying white guy. (But that then might send me down the typical path for remorseful white guys -- to become deeply religious and devoted to saving the world, which would make me even more one of the people she dislikes but feels compelled to write about.)

And she really needs to start structuring her books; they're still just overgrown essays, in which she wanders around her topic until she has enough pages for a book. A little rigor and spine would be an excellent thing to add to the next Vowell production -- which, from the evidence, will likely be about white people coming to some other American land and causing trouble for the locals -- I predict it will be a history of Texas.

[1] Mostly inadvertently, which makes this a reasonably light-hearted book for Vowell; no one was passing out smallpox-laded blankets at Diamond Head.


Anonymous said...

WashPost Review

Andrew Wheeler said...

mjlayman: I think you meant this review, by Allegra Goodman; you linked to another page on this blog.

While I'm linking, the New York Times Book Review also reviewed Unfamiliar Fishes, with a piece by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Post a Comment