How Aloha Can You Go?

Jeff Garlin

Image via Wikipedia

By Libby Molyneaux

Writer/radio commentator Sarah Vowell comes to town to sit down with Jeff Garlin and talk about her latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, a funny and lively history of America’s acquisition of Hawaii.

LA WEEKLY: Like The Wordy Shipmates, you’ve made learning about history informative yet funny and entertaining. But why did you choose Hawaii?

SARAH VOWELL: Oh, the same reason anyone chooses Hawaii — because its story offers a triple whammy of three of life’s most lovable subjects — whaling, President McKinley and overbearing Protestants. I wish I were kidding. In nonfiction, we’re always trying to organize chaos. In tracing the Americanization of Hawaii in the 19th century, there was something so compelling to me about the way these two groups of antithetical New Englanders — the whalers and the missionaries — changed the islands so radically. Between 1819, when the first ships of New England Bible thumpers and whale hunters made a beeline for Hawaii, and 1898, when the missionary descendants who had overthrown the Hawaiian queen handed the place over to the United States, it’s possible to witness an absolute revolution in the political, ecological and racial makeup of Hawaii. Whatever one thinks of that handful of white folks, they certainly made their mark. And the story is so small and contained and incestuous that the grandson of a couple of missionaries from the first boatload in 1819 becomes the architect of overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in the 1890s. Besides that, the way the U.S. acquired those islands in 1898 is part of another radical change, that being the United States becoming the empire we are now, essentially in one, war-mongering, colonizing summer.

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