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Unfamiliar Fishes

March 22, 2012

A defining summer of my life was the summer I turned eleven, when my family rented a room in an “apartment hotel” on Oahu and toured around Kaui, Maui, and the big island of Hawaii. My parents each took a course at the University of Hawaii, where I found a copy of Harriet the Spy in the University bookstore and read it over and over the rest of the summer. We arrived on Kamehameha Day, a holiday that we had never heard of before we first saw his statue entirely draped in leis in front of the Aliiolani Hale in Honolulu.

All four of us—my parents and my brother and me—read books about Hawaii for the next thirty years, and planned another trip on the summer of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and my 25th. We were able to return to many of the places we’d frequented that summer so long ago, note the differences, and luxuriate in the things that had stayed the same (the Royal Hawaiian is still pink and easy to spot from the surf. Waikiki is still a great place to meet other people who like to build sand castles. The International Market place is still a fun place to walk around, as long as you have a good grip on your wallet.) Walker was eleven that summer, and now he longs to return as much as I always have; I hope it doesn’t take him as long to get back for a second visit.

I still read everything I can about Hawaii, so when Sarah Vowell came out with Unfamiliar Fishes, I knew I had to get my hands on it eventually. It wasn’t as funny as The Wordy Shipmates, which is my favorite of her books so far, but it was at least as amusing as Assassination Vacation. And she put some of the previous stories I’d read in context, like Michener’s severe missionaries, who had given me the horrors as a child:

“It’s tempting to reduce the initial encounters between Hawaiians and missionaries to some sort of clunky prequel to Footloose. After all, when Daniel Chamberlain witnessed his first hula, he wrote, ‘I scarcely ever saw anything look more Satanic.’ Yet a procreative hula honoring a high chief strikes me as emblematically Hawaiian because it is conservative. The cultural collision of the New Englanders and their new neighbors isn’t a quarrel between barefoot, freewheeling libertines and starchy, buttoned-up paragons of virtue (though that is how the missionaries see it). To me, it is the story of traditionalists squaring off.”

Vowell goes back and forth between New England and Hawaii, as historians must, but her trademark sense of humor makes the contrast seem a little less stark than usual:

“I sat in the pew where the young Melville once sat. It’s a nice little church, its walls lined with tributes to men lost at sea. But the place is marred by the phony, cartoonish ship-shaped pulpit the town put there after the John Huston movie of Moby-Dick came out in 1956 and tourists showed up expecting to see the stupid movie prop Orson Welles stood behind to deliver the sermon. I know sixteen-year-olds who have never heard of Bill Murray, much less John Huston; I think it’s safe to say visitors’ Huston-movie expectations have dwindled to the point where the real pulpit can be once again restored.”

I get the sense, reading Vowell, that she might be like Samuel Johnson, who wrote “I dogmatize and am refuted, and in this cycle find my delight.” Otherwise, how could she spend enough time indoors while on a Hawaiian island to dig up stories like the one about the schoolmaster Mr. Cooke who ran the Chiefs’ Children’s School and flogged the three Kamehameha brothers with a rawhide whip imported from Connecticut when they would not “give up their heathen, native ways”?

She does get out, though, touring a garden which “honors the architecture of Maui’s original inhabitants and immigrants, featuring a traditional Hawaiian grass house, a Portuguese oven, a Filipino hut, a Japanese teahouse, a Chinese pagoda, a Korean gate, and a New England missionary’s house….Amid the Buddhist silhouettes in the Kepaniwai Gardens, the puritanical Massachusetts saltbox looks as exotic—as ethnic—as the pagoda.”

Mostly, though, Vowell has done the indoor work of digging up such things as “an editorial in Planter’s Monthly” which “complained, “The so-called Coronation of the King [Kalakaua], with the attendant follies and extravagances, has been directly damaging to the property interests and welfare of the country.”

She concludes hopefully, saying that some of the old Hawaiian ways endure, despite the many efforts to change them on the part of 19th-century missionaries and other people who have been inexorably drawn by the extravagant beauty and friendliness of the Hawaiian islands.

Have you ever gotten to go? Do you long to go back?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2012 9:02 am

    You know I’ve been. Seven times in 11 months.

    No, I don’t long to go back but then again, I got to know Hilo in ways most tourists don’t. And I got to know the people on the Big Island differently too. They weren’t backdrops for my tourism.

    • March 23, 2012 7:33 am

      Hilo is not the place I most long to see again–that place would be on the other (less rainy) side of the big island. We liked looking at the ocean and thinking how many uninterrupted miles of it there are from that point.

  2. Gwendolyn Bailey permalink
    March 22, 2012 9:13 am

    Hope to go. One child is looking at U of H for a doctorate. Mainly, I would hope to be as amazed and enthralled as Mark Twain when he say the islands for the first time.He always thought the blame was his for their annexation.

    • March 23, 2012 7:34 am

      Walker and I did talk about U of Hawaii, but they don’t have the programs he’s looking for. Too bad.

  3. March 22, 2012 10:13 am

    What wonderful memories you have from Hawaii! I was there when I was only 4 or 5, so I’d love to go back and really enjoy it one day. In Vowell’s book it did feel like she never fully embraced Hawaii for what it is. She missed the beauty and saw only the history, not a bad thing, but some of the picture was missing.

    • March 23, 2012 7:35 am

      I think that’s how Vowell sees everything. It makes New England more interesting, but Hawaii a bit less interesting. And Lemming, a historian, evidently feels the same way!

  4. March 22, 2012 11:18 am

    I enjoyed Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” and her style in general.

    I don’t have any desire to go to Hawaii – I wouldn’t turn down a free trip there, but I’d rather see the UK again.

    • March 23, 2012 7:37 am

      Not having any desire to go to Hawaii is good in terms of not having longings you can’t assuage. But it’s mystifying to me.

  5. March 22, 2012 1:34 pm

    I’ve never been but desperately want to go. Perhaps this would be a good companion for when I do go.

    • March 23, 2012 7:38 am

      This book would be good preparation. It is good to know about some of the history of the islands before you go, so that when you get to places like the Bishop Museum you know a little about what you’re seeing.

  6. March 22, 2012 2:22 pm

    We did go, some time ago when N was probably 11. I could figure out the year if I tried, I suppose. We loved it. We spent time on the Big Island and on Kauaii, and that was about perfect. I should read this book, as I am interested in New Englanders and their odd ways. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book by Sarah Vowell, and I’m not sure I could without picturing her reedy voice in my ear the whole time. At the time, we were interested in the Portuguese, who were whalers, and have left their pastries in a swath across the globe — or at least in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts and Hawai’i — which makes sense, as those are places whalers, who were also New Englanders, of course, would go. “To me, it is the story of traditionalists squaring off.” — I think she’s probably right about that. Interesting.

    • March 23, 2012 7:42 am

      Having listened to one of her books on audio (Assassination Vacation), I now hear her voice when I read her, and I think it adds pleasantly to the experience.

      We went to Leonard’s bakery on our most recent trip to Honolulu, to get a Portuguese doughnut called a Malasada. Delicious.

      • March 23, 2012 2:44 pm


        She used to be on NPR all the time. I like her voice, too, but it’s a very particular one.

  7. March 22, 2012 8:51 pm

    I went in 2005 for a week when we were moving back to the States from being stationed in Japan. We stayed at the Hale Koa near Waikiki and had a great time, it was such a nice break from the stress of moving.

    Then I got to go back with my DH in fall 2010 when he had a convention and I went as his plus one. It was only four days so probably not worth the jet-lag but how could I let him go alone? This time there were no kids which was also fun, we ate lots of good food and I relaxed while he did convention-type stuff. The highlight of the trip was the LOST tour — I got to spend an afternoon in a Hummer driving around all the places where they filmed the show, which was really fun. I also saw the botanical gardens and drove up the east side of the island which was just beautiful. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

    • March 23, 2012 7:45 am

      I’ve never seen a place in Hawaii that was not beautiful. And four days? I’d call that totally worth any jet lag, especially if it wasn’t my conference. I liked waking up way before everyone else and going to bed when the other people on Oahu were just starting their evenings.

  8. March 23, 2012 11:23 am

    PW has been a couple of times. We have a friend who has a house on Kauai (where she has stayed twice). Her cousin has a tiny apartment on Maui that he just last week offered to let us use any time it’s available. I’ve always wanted to go. One of these days, Alice!

    • March 24, 2012 11:41 am

      We didn’t get to Maui the last time we went, but I hear it’s still beautiful–some people claim the most beautiful island.

  9. freshhell permalink
    March 23, 2012 6:21 pm

    Hawaii is the only place I’ve ever been off the continental. I went as a nanny in 1987. I was there for a week and it wasn’t a vacation. It was beautiful and I wish I’d seen more of it.

    • March 24, 2012 11:42 am

      It must be interesting to know folks who choose to afford to take along a nanny on a week-long Hawaiian vacation!

      • freshhell permalink
        March 25, 2012 11:36 am

        Well, those folks were my dad and step-mother. I was a nanny for my two youngest sisters for a year. My step-mother worked for the advertising arm of AH Robins (made Robitussin, Chapstick,etc) and the owner took the staff on lavish retreats. One year it was in Hawaii and she turned it into a vacation and took us along. So, it wasn’t a vacation for me but at least I got to see Hawaii.


  1. Huki-Links: March 28, 2012 | Hawaii Book Blog

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