For my Non-Fiction Friends
Admittedly, this is called the "Better Characters Blog" and non-fiction doesn't so much have characters as it has...real people. And while an argument can be made that written history can distort the realities of these people in a way that makes them seem character-like ("Let them eat cake!"), to delve into the non-fiction genre seems to go against the core of this blog.
Well, too bad. My blog, my rules and when I say I read everything under the sun, I mean it. I'll counter my own statement above by saying that the true core of this blog is to find better book options for women who are sick of the massive misrepresentation of their gender in literature. I love non-fiction and to those who say they don't, I say, "You just haven't found the good stuff." History is incredible and for every fact or event you know, there are 500 you don't. And, always, always another side of the story.
I was enticed to pick up Unfamiliar Fishes because I had recently read Sarah Vowell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States and loved it. I mean, I told EVERYONE I know to pick it up on this holiday vacation for some good travel reading. I still tell people about it. I'm telling you to read it now. But enough about that...
After reading Unfamiliar Fishes, I felt like I'd been cheated - not by this book, by my education. We just don't pay enough attention to Hawaii. Seriously. I consider myself well-educated and well-read and before opening the cover of this book, the sum total of my knowledge of Hawaii was Pearl Harbor and the fact that our current president was born there. And while not to place the blame for this solely on the public education system I grew up in, I can't remember a single day in class talking about Hawaii [perhaps with the exception of the one-sentence in my textbook informing me that Hawaii was annexed and signed into territory in the 1890's]. And it's not overly surprising that this is the case since the invasion of Hawaii was complete in overthrowing the customs, traditions, religions, language as well as the government in a style very similar to, but less violent than, the United State's elimination of the Native Americans. Sarah Vowell cracks this wide open and deftly digs into both the motivations of the U.S. government and also the beautiful culture that was very nearly lost.
Without reiterating the entire history of Hawaii and it's annexation (and thereby summarizing the entire book before you read it), I will hit on some highlights that I think make this an interesting read. [I want to insert a disclaimer here that I haven't yet done additional research on the native customs so if I misrepresent facts, it is entirely unintentional.] Hawaii was a monarchy. There was a royal family and this included many prominent princesses and queens. In fact, the entire native society seems, while not definitively matriarchal, to place a high value and respect on the female gender. Elderly women, especially, seem particularly revered. Vowell spends quite a bit of time on Queen Liliʻuokalani's contributions to Hawaii - far more than her most famous song "Aloha 'Oe" - and Princess Kaiulani, a would-be Queen powerless to help her own country as it fell under foreign powers. This book also gives you an intimate look into the traditions of Native Hawaiians and the ways in which they are continued to be celebrated today. But what I love most about it is that it lets you see this part of history from an honest point-of-view.
Sarah Vowell is known for her wry and sardonic tone, which fits well into her subject matter. She repeatedly takes moments in the history of the United States and finds the other side of the story. And you can't do that without sometimes making those we've been taught are heroes look considerably less so.* But this is what makes her voice so refreshing - it feels as if a veil is being removed and you can see clearly the underlying truths. Pair that with her wonderful wit and inviting anecdotes, and you get a book that is so enjoyable to read, you'll forget you're reading history. It's the non-fiction good stuff.
by Sarah Vowell
*A large part of the overthrow of Hawaiian customs was instigated and dictated by the Christian missionaries who came to share their religion, and this book does not shine a favorable light on them. If this is going to offend you from the get-go, you may not enjoy this book. Alternatively, you may just need to be more accepting of others' beliefs.