Unfamiliar Fishes (Vowell)

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Unfamiliar Fishes:

1. How does Sarah Vowell portray the missionaries and their efforts to convert Hawaiians to Christianity? Was their intervention into Hawaiian culture for the better or worse?

2. What about the whalers who appeared later? Vowell describes their clash with the missionaries as "representing opposing sides of America's schizophrenic divide—Bible-thumping prudes and sailors on leave." Is that an adequate description? Was that kind of "divide" endemic only to America...or did it exist elsewhere? Does Vowell's "schizophrenic divide" exist today?

3. Talk about this statement by Vowell in her book:

In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don't give a damn what you think.'"

What exactly does Vowell mean? Is this a fair assessment of the age-old argument of faith vs. reason? Does it hold true even today...or has the discussion changed?

4. Vowell writes that the missionaries "sort of kind of had a point. 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, then, does Vowell see Hawaii's history a result of poor governance by its ruling class? Or was its annexation by America inevitable given its location and geography.

5. Were you shocked...intrigued...or amused by some of the indigenous practices of incest, genital worship, and the taboos against women?

6. What do you think of Sarah Vowell's tone, which many find refreshingly funny and others find forced and tiresome. How would you describe her narrative voice?

7. What is the significance of the book's title, "Unfamiliar Fishes"?

8. What was "Manifest Destiny"? How does it tie into the belief in American exceptionalism?

9. Grover Cleveland called the Hawaiian affair "a miserable business" and said he was ashamed. His successors as president, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, were delighted. Where does your opinion fall—do you believe the United States had the right to Americanize and annex the Hawaiian Islands?

10. What have you learned about Hawaii after reading Unfamiliar Fishes? What surprised you most?

11. Are there any heroes in this story of the Hawaiian Islands? Any villains? Is the history of the Islands a tragic story...a redemptive one...or something else?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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