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 April 01, 2011


Contagious Vacations:
Sarah Vowell on Hawaii’s History

by Dan Lybarger

Sarah Vowell
Author, essayist and social commentator Sarah Vowell. (photo by Bennett Miller)

In her books, audio essays (for public radio’s This American Life) and speeches, Sarah Vowell may be the only person on earth who can describe her vacations or recall historical events without making listeners sleepy.

That’s probably because not many vacationers frame their tales as entertainingly as she can. Vowell uses her journeys to explain how our country has developed, and she resurrects the fears, excitement and intrigue that our ancestors faced.

In her latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, she explains how the past and present meet in Hawaii. When she comes to Unity Temple on The Plaza, 707 W 47th Street, Kansas City, Missouri at 7 p.m. on Sun., April 3 (tickets are available at Rainy Day Books), don’t be surprised if she makes you want to visit the same places she’s been or dig through the same musty documents she’s read.

Contacted by phone in San Francisco before her Kansas City appearance, Vowell explains, “Doing a reading is different from writing a book. You have to be cognizant that people are sitting there wanting to go home. That’s what most audiences are, people who want to go home. They have laundry to do, dinner reservations, whatever.

“Because I’m an audience member, I want to go home myself. There are certain sections of the book that are better out loud, things that are perhaps a little funnier that merely informational.”

A Nephew’s Help

It probably doesn’t hurt that she often joins her fraternal twin sister Amy and her outspoken young nephew Owen on her trips. The lad often says things during the journeys that wind up in his aunt’s books and essays.

She recalls, “It wasn’t really an intentional thing. I don’t know how to drive, so his mother has always been kind enough to come with me on some of my reporting trips to drive me around to places that have less than adequate public transportation. When Owen was born, you know how kids need their mothers, so he would just come along.

“When he first started talking, he would say a lot of quotable things. Some of it was the joy of childhood malapropisms. I needed his mom to drive me to Ohio when I was writing about assassinated presidents (in Assassination Vacation) and going to the cemetery where President Garfield is buried. After he got home from that trip, he told his mother he wanted to go to the cemetery. He called it, ‘a Halloween Park.’ He captures the weird appeal of cemeteries because they are sort of park-like.”

Even as he matures, Owen remains a valuable collaborator. “Sometimes he brings me down to earth because I get so sucked into what I’m researching.”

When she recalled to him how whaling ships frequently stopped by Honolulu harbor, the youngster was horrified by the slaughter of the animals and didn’t share his aunt’s obsession with Moby Dick. “He couldn’t stop being offended by the entire thing. So when I told him to lighten up because pretty soon that petroleum would be discovered in Pennsylvania and then the whole would go ape for fossil fuel, he just said, ‘Good.’

“He didn’t know anything about whaling, which means to me that he didn’t really read the Moby Dick popup book I game him,” she adds.

No Dry Text

In all of her work, Vowell attempts to make recalling the past in a more visceral manner than history teachers did in school. Vowell is a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, and her own tales have much of the same intrigue.

In The Wordy Shipmates, she expertly recalls how Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, left Massachusetts in order to escape deportation for his radical beliefs (he felt church and state should be separated because the latter would corrupt the former). He wound up receiving an urgent but secret warning.

“He was (Williams’) friend. When the official militia wants to stick him on a boat and send him back to England, (Williams) wasn’t at home because someone had warned him. It was later revealed that that someone was (John) Winthrop (the Massachusetts governor and the leader of that militia). I would do that for a friend, even one I disagreed with. It made them seem less far away or a Puritan cartoon. That made them seem like they were two guys who were buddies.”

Similarly, in recounting how June Carter Cash came to co-write her husband Johnny Cash’s hit song “Ring of Fire,” she makes listeners feel both their forbidden desire (both were married to others at the time) and their very real fear of facing fire and brimstone. Reese Witherspoon may have won an Oscar for playing June in the movie Walk the Line, but Vowell’s account of their relationship is far more powerful than the film. In case you doubt me on this, got to the This American Life site to hear for yourself at the 47:30 mark.

Vowell can also make seemingly staid subject matter hysterically funny. Her high-pitched nasal voice and her droll, deadpan delivery make anything she says sound more amusing. Even in print, she’s a riot. In Assassination Vacation, she attends the musical 1776 in the same theater where Abraham Lincoln was shot. While liking the performance, laments, “Going to Ford's Theatre to watch the play is like going to Hooters for the food.”

In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recalls how 19th century Hawaii went from being an isolated kingdom to part of the United States. She recalls how both whalers and New England missionaries fought over the destiny of the islands. Naturally, she finds an engaging way to retell the feud. In describing how a French voyage to the islands included collecting data on social diseases spread by previous European sailors, she muses, “Typical — the only thing more European than spreading VD is documenting it.”

Toward the end of the monarchy, one almost begins to side with the colonists because King Kalakaua was paying for his massive gambling debts with the public treasury. It’s no wonder the kingdom fell two years after he died in 1891.

Before you start to celebrate his demise, Vowell cautions that Kalahaua also preserved important aspects of Hawaiian culture like hula dancing which could have been lost because missionaries disapproved of them. She adds, “Yes, he was corrupt and inept. But his contemporary over here, President Grant, happened to be presiding over one of the most corrupt administrations in our history. It was ‘The Gilded Age.’ There’s this golden sheen over an ugly face.”

Forced Diversity

Our current president, Barack Obama, was born in Hawaii, and his multi-ethnic ancestry is actually typical of the region. With the 19th century rise of sugar plantations, the owners recruited from around the globe to find the multitudes needed to grow the labor-intensive crop. According to Vowell, it wasn’t political correctness that made them recruit workers from Japan, the Philippines and other remote locales.

“The reasons the plantation owners wanted all these different kinds of people were that they intentionally built their own little Towers of Babel in the Pacific because they didn’t want their workers to be able to talk to one another because they didn’t want their workers to organize against their overlords.”

A Woman of Many Faces

If you’ve never heard of Vowell or her books, there’s still a good chance you’ve either heard or seen her. She’s been on dozens of talk shows and has appeared on the TV show Bored to Death and in the movie Please Give. In that film, Catherine Keener can be spotted reading The Wordy Shipmates, and then Vowell can be spotted as an indifferent customer in Keener’s shop.

Most people, however, know her as the voice of the invisible Violet Parr in the Pixar classic The Incredibles. Vowell says that she prefers to be typing her books instead of appearing on camera, but says her readings and acting career help her find new readers for her unusual but rewarding texts.

“Being a salesman enables me to keep writing the little books I do. Part of the reason I can write these books that sound like ones that nobody would want to read,” says Vowell. “I went to graduate school and wrote a graduate thesis, and I think one guy, the one who was grading it, read it. I couldn’t contain my rage that this was something only one person would read. It seemed like such a waste to me. Before I’m a writer, I’m a reader. A book doesn’t exist unless someone’s reading it.”

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at