Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell book club discussion questions

The Las Vegas Non-Fiction book group will be meeting tomorrow to discuss Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.  These are the questions I will use to keep the discussion going.

What do you think of Sarah Vowell’s tone? How would you describe her narrative voice?

Did you know much about the history of Hawaii before reading the book? What new information did you learn?

What do you think of the choice of book title and cover photo? (quote from David Malo:
If a big wave comes in, 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. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will
devour us.)

Was the missionaries’ intervention into Hawaiian culture for the better or worse?

Are there any heroes in this story of the Hawaiian Islands? Any villains?

Vowell describes the whalers’ clash with the missionaries as “representing opposing sides of America’s schizophrenic divide—Bible-thumping prudes and sailors on leave.” Was this a fair description then? Is it true now?

Grover Cleveland said he was ashamed about the annexation of Hawaii, but William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were delighted. Do you believe the United States had the right to Americanise and annex Hawaii?

Were you surprised at the indigenous practices of incest, genital worship, and the taboos against women?

Vowell writes that “if Kalakaua had taken better care of his charge…then his enemies would have been unable to swaddle themselves…in the mantle of…1776.” To what extent do you think Hawaii’s annexation is a result of poor governance by its ruling class?

Who has been to Hawaii? Does anyone have a personal story connected to the book to share?

Do you have unanswered questions? If the author were here, what would you ask her?

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