Hawaii’s state motto, “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina I ka pono” means: “The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.” As a teen growing up in Hawaii when it was still a territory, the history of what was to become the 50th state was alive to me, though incomplete. The stories of the Alii—Hawaiian royalty—and the kingdom’s old days were both exotic and mysterious. Class trips to Oahu’s Bishop Museum, the Royal Mausoleum, Queen Emma’s summer home, and the Iolani Palace were special. The legendary King Kamehameha, conqueror of the island chain and founder of the dynasty that bore his name, died in 1819 and thus was spared the sight of his people’s struggle for survival. There are countless books about the island kingdom’s demise though none as enlightening as Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes,” Riverhead Books.
She spares no one—Explorer Captain Cook, whalers, New England’s early missionaries, double-dealing businessmen, and political acolytes of America’s Manifest Destiny. Even Hawaii’s royalty does not escape her keen historian’s eye. This is no dry recitation of the kingdom’s vivisection that reduced the native Hawaiian population from 300,000 in Cook’s day to less than 30,000 one century later. Vowell writes with hammer in one hand, witty scalpel in the other. A frequent visitor to the islands, she shows a tender appreciation for the original people and grudging admiration for the privation those oft maligned, but hardy missionaries who brought the Gospel to the islands, suffered.
To truly appreciate Hawaii one must know its history and American imperialism, particularly in the Pacific. The author does not paint a pretty picture though she does cast a wide net to capture villains and saints with solid journalism. By all means visit the 50th state, but read this book before going…or better yet, skip Waikiki and take it with you while exploring the real Hawaii.