Sarah Vowells latest tome, Unfamiliar Fishes, takes its title from a letter by native Hawaiian David Malo, who was converted to Christianity by nineteenth-century missionaries but was still concerned about the impact of Caucasians on the islands. If a big wave comes in, he wrote, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.
A lot has changed since Malo penned those words; Vowell herself became interested in Hawaii as a result of her study of the Spanish-American War era. The year 1898 is a crucial year in American history, she notes. Its the year we annexed Hawaii. We kind of became a world power essentially in a summer, and Hawaii is part of that.
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Hawaii, to me, of all those island acquisitions from that year, is the most interesting one, and its also the only one of those islands that became a state, she says. And I think part of that has to do with the story I tell in this book, of the decades leading up to 1898 and the story of Americans in Hawaii, starting with the arrival of the New England missionaires and whalers in 1820, and then the impact those missionaries and their children and grandchildren had on those islands.
Vowell will read from Unfamiliar Fishes at 3 p.m. today at the LoDo Tattered Cover, 1628 16th Street; for more information on the signing, call 303-436-1070 or go to www.tatteredcover.com.
Sun., March 27, 3 p.m., 2011