In her new book, Sarah Vowell tackles the annexation of Hawaii with a dose of her trademark comedic genius.Sarah Vowell has a distinctive take on what makes for an entertaining read. From the New England Puritans to the spots where U.S. presidents were assassinated, Vowell has spun the good, the bad and the odd of American history into enlightening and hilarious literary gold. Now, in Unfamiliar Fishes (Riverhead Books, $26), the author dishes on the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Like the Hawaiian plate lunch that inspired the book — “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken?” — Vowell serves up a surprising mix of history, humor and personal stories that shouldn’t go together but somehow do.
American Way: Why the annexation fascination?
Sarah Vowell: I first went to Hawaii to see Pearl Harbor. The last few years, I’ve become kind of obsessed with that year, 1898, as this corner that the country turns. It’s just so intriguing to me how, in basically a summer, we became a world power.
AW: How was reporting on the history of Hawaii different than, say, Gettysburg?
SV: A lot of big events in American history happened at pretty mundane spots. Like Gettysburg — it’s a nice little spot, but it’s just like any old bunch of fields. A lot of big events in Hawaii happened at the most breathtaking landscapes you could ever imagine. The cliffs overlooking the city of Honolulu were the site of [Kamehameha’s] last big battle, when he finally conquered the islands.
AW: So your trips there gave you a tourism twofer of beauty and history?
SV: You could just be on your way to Waikiki and not even think about [the history of the place] as you drive past those cliffs on your way to your beach hotel. But seeing them and knowing what happened there is just so much more interesting.