"ALL THEY EVER WANTED was a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park a fleet of battleships," Sarah Vowell writes in Unfamiliar Fishes. She's referring to then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his pals, who ended up getting their wish. In what Vowell describes as a "four-month orgy of imperialism" in 1898, America invaded Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico—and also clumsily annexed Hawaii, an act that required America's politicians to do their best to ignore the cries of protest from Hawaiians, who kind of liked not being part of an entirely different country located 2,000 miles away. Thanks to those four months in 1898, Vowell notes, America "became a world power for the first time—became what it is now." Sorry, Hawaii! And other places!
While Unfamiliar Fishes is firmly rooted in that historical context—the modern history of Hawaii is impossible to separate from that of America, as it greedily expanded both geographically and culturally—Vowell's mostly interested in what went down in the Hawaiian Islands from 1820 to 1898. That tumultuous 78-year-period began when a boat of prim, obnoxious Bible thumpers from New England arrived with the goal of turning everyone who lived on the islands into prim, obnoxious Bible thumpers. Things didn't go smoothly. Sure, Jesus eventually snagged a respectable number of fans on the islands—including, a few decades on, one named Barack Obama—but its crude cultural and political takeover was complicated by clashes with drunken sailors, a cult started up by a power-hungry pseudo-Mormon, and a simmering, occasionally bloody revolt against Hawaii's monarchy.
It's a dense saga, and—to me, at least—a largely unknown one. So it's perhaps not unexpected that Unfamiliar Fishes can take awhile to get comfortable in, thanks to a daunting lineup of interchangeable missionaries and a slew of important Hawaiians whose names, packed with impressively complex combinations of A, E, I, O, and U, can seem designed to thwart the very concept of pronunciation. But while an index or a few family trees would've been welcome, Unfamiliar Fishes ultimately settles into an approachable, brisk, and frequently fascinating read. Though she's charting a course through "Hawaii's bit part in the epic of American global domination"—and though she never shirks from the religious, cultural, legal, and ethical implications of this tropical manifest destiny—Vowell's a tourist here just like most of us, and she remains thoroughly smitten with Hawaii's charms, both the complicated historical ones and those readily apparent to anyone with a pair of functional eyeballs. "Sunsets there are downright lurid," she says of the town Hanalei on Kauai; later, she gets a kick out of staying in the same Honolulu high-rise Jack Lord stood atop in the opening credits of Hawaii Five-O. ("While I command the same view as Jack and his jawline, this morning it's yet another voggy day," Vowell writes. "Vog, the volcanic fog blowing over here from Kilauea, is the most exotic air pollution my landlubber's lungs have ever coughed up.")
At no point, though, does Vowell become so infatuated with the beauty of Hawaii—or so angry about Americans' appetite for it—that she gets in the way. First and foremost, this is the story of how a remote archipelago in the middle of the Pacific, once ruled by warriors and kings, somehow turned into both a military stronghold and massive resort where pasty Midwesterners devour paperbacks and mai tais. Vowell, as smart and funny and determined as ever, knows just how to draw us in—and just when to step back and, for better or worse, let history speak for itself.