Sarah Vowell: Empire-building state of mind

It’s not hard to imagine what would interest most people about doing an extensive “research project” in Hawaii. But Sarah Vowell? She was genuinely in it for the history.

“For me, it was how Hawaii played on my obsession with the Spanish American War. I don’t know how that comes off to other people — I guess I’m not the sunniest person,” admits the author, whose latest, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” looks at the union’s 50th state. “But it seems like for the last few years, I’ve been preoccupied with thinking about 1898. It’s basically the year we became who we are now — we became an empire, we became a world power intentionally. We had been about isolationism and tending our own garden, and then we turned this corner.”

With her trademark brand of infectiously nerdy historical humor, Vowell starts in 1819 when New England missionaries arrived to a sweet little hunk of the world known as Maui, lingers on the islands’ annexation by the U.S. in 1898 and then follows Hawaii’s culture and cultural upheaval through 2008, when native Barack Obama was elected president.

Despite its unique story, Vowell ultimately portrays a state that has more in common — for better or, more frequently, for worse — with its 49 peers than you’d suspect. “The Hawaiians got the full gamut of American culture. You had these New England missionaries and then also their exact opposites: New England sailors on leave,” says Vowell. “A sailor on leave does not want a sermon and a Bible — he wants a drink and a girl. So we kind of have full-blown American-style culture wars going on 6,000 miles from Boston Harbor.”

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