Island Life

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Alexander Ho for TIME

Island Life

Sarah Vowell's first visit to Hawaii was to see the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, a monument to Pearl Harbor. "I didn't come here for direct sunlight or 'fun,'" she writes. "I came to Hawaii because it had been attacked."

Why did the author of the quirky Americana books Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates keep going back? In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell argues for Hawaii's story as a microcosm of the U.S.'s. There's an indigenous culture suppressed by Bible-thumping Christians and land exploited for profit and military advantage by American haoles (the white-faced "unfamiliar fishes" who annexed the islands in 1898). But it's also a place where spiritual adventurers found a bountiful new homeland, where cultures coexist and where a future President was born to globetrotting parents.

As Vowell unravels "Hawaii's bit part in the epic of American global domination," she finds an object lesson. Those who opposed the U.S.'s part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq lamented that "this is not who we are." But Hawaii, Vowell writes, is a reminder that "from time to time, this is exactly who we are."