[Vowell's] prose is conversational but clever, her anecdotes quirky yet highly crafted…It's the kind of writing performed so well on National Public Radio, journalism as human interest, history as found poetry, monologue casting a spell of public intimacy…this is a book aimed at a wide audience, and Vowell tells a good tale. Forgive her journalistic excesses, consider her shrewd observations, and enjoy her comic turns of phrase. If you feel compelled after reading to journey to the Bishop Museum or devour the journals of Captain Cook or see some real hula, so much the better.
The Washington Post
Greed, death, cultural desecration, manifest destinywhat a lark! But with Vowell as tour guide it does, at times, manage to be just that…Vowell deftly summarizes complex events and significant upheavals, reducing them to their essence…While [her] take on Hawaii's Americanization is abbreviated, it's never bereft of substanceher repartee manages to be filling, her insights astute and comprehensive.
The New York Times
Recounting the brief, remarkable history of a unified and independent Hawaii, Vowell, a public radio star and bestselling author (The Wordy Shipmates), retraces the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England. In her usual wry tone, Vowell brings out the ironies of their efforts: while the missionaries tried to prevent prostitution with seamen and the resulting deadly diseases, the natives believed it was the missionaries who would kill them: "they will pray us all to death." Along the way, and with the best of intentions, the missionaries eradicated an environmentally friendly, laid-back native culture (although the Hawaiians did have taboos against women sharing a table with men, upon penalty of death, and a reverence for "royal incest"). Freely admitting her own prejudices, Vowell gives contemporary relevance to the past as she weaves in, for instance, Obama's boyhood memories. Outrageous and wise-cracking, educational but never dry, this book is a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the U.S.'s most unusual state and its unanticipated twists on the familiar story of Americanization. (Mar.)
Sarah Vowell is an intellectual melting pot. Her cleverness is gorgeously American…” – Los Angeles Times
“Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself, in a kind of 50th-state variety show. It’s a fun book…[a] playful, provocative, stand-up approach to history.”—The New York Times Book Review
“As entertaining and personable as it is informative.”—Washington Post
“Sarah Vowell is for my money, the best essayist/radio commentator/sit-down comic and pointy headed history geek in the business.”—Seattle Times
Displaying her trademark wry, smart-alecky style, author/historian Vowell (contributing editor, NPR's This American Life The Wordy Shipmates) tells the story of the Americanization of the formerly independent nation of Hawaii, beginning in the early 1820s with the New England missionaries who remade the island paradise to conform to their own culture. The diverse characters about whom she writes include an incestuous princess torn between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen. Unfortunately, listeners' enjoyment of this otherwise compelling material is diminished by Vowell's staccato, monotone reading of it, and brief cameos by various entertainment industry personalities are not enough to recommend it over the print version. [The Riverhead hc, which was an LJ Best Seller, was recommended for Vowell's "growing number of fans and those with an interest in Hawaii's history," LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/17/11.—Ed.]—Dale Farris, Groves, TX
Ever-clever NPR contributor Vowell (The Wordy Shipmates, 2008, etc.) offers a quick, idiosyncratic account of Hawaii from the time Capt. James Cook was dispatched to the then–Sandwich Islands to the end of the 19th century, when the United States annexed the islands.
The author skips the politics by which Hawaii was admitted to the union in 1959. Within months, James Michener's blockbuster novel named after the new state became a runaway bestseller. Now, with a Hawaiian-born resident of the White House, Vowell's nonfiction report is a fine update—short, sweet and personal. She's especially sharp in her considerations of the baleful effect of imposed religion as missionaries tried to turn happy Polynesians into dour Yankees. Earnest, intrepid advocates embarked for the place where Cook died, hoping to correct the islander's easygoing—and, in the case of royalty, incestuous—ways. The invading clerics were soon followed by rowdy whalers who rubbed their fellow New Englanders the wrong way. (They were the "unfamiliar fishes" new to Honolulu's waters). The result was early empire building in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. Annexation and the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch, was a destiny aided, ironically, by powerful Hawaiians. Vowell celebrates the early restoration of the hula, but she skims much of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 20th century. The author presents the views of the islanders as well as the invaders, as she delves into journals and narratives and takes field trips with local guides. Her characteristic light touch is evident throughout.
Lively history and astute sociology make a sprightly chronicle of a gorgeous archipelago and its people.