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Wisecracking history

Last modified: 3/10/2011 12:00:00 AM
If you want to make Sarah Vowell feel at home when she visits Concord later this month, your best bet is to find a big black conical hat with a giant belt buckle on the front. A wide, white collar and a pair of knee-length breeches wouldn't hurt either, and you could try brushing up on your Bible stories.

The thing is, Vowell tends to get a wee bit obsessed with her subject matter, to the point that, well, she sometimes forgets what century she's in. Having spent the better part of the past decade researching Puritans - first, in their colonization of New England, then in their calculated evangelism of Hawaii - Vowell isn't sure what she'll do when faced with a real live New Englander.

"I guess I don't really think of you people as continuing to exist," said Vowell, who will be at Red River Theatres on March 24 to promote her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes. It's the fifth in a line of bestsellers that traffic in a unique brand of storytelling one might describe as wisecracking earnestness. Narrow in scope, feverish in detail, at once nervy and tender, it

offers a whole new look at a place most Americans think of as paradise.

"It reminded me of things I already knew but maybe had chosen not to think about," Vowell said in a telephone interview from New York last week.

A contributing editor for the public radio show This American Life for 12 years (and the voice of Violet in the animated film The Incredibles), Vowell grew interested in the story of how Hawaii became part of the United States while on a quick visit to the island to see the USS Arizona Memorial. With a little extra time to kill, she took a stroll through the Iolani Palace, where Queen Liliuokalani ruled and later was imprisoned for treason after a group of royalists tried to launch a counterrevolution against the United States.

Always a hands-on historian, Vowell ended up traveling the 50th state, gobbling up facts and trivia the way tourists gobble up the ubiquitous "plate lunch" she describes in her opening pages. A descendant of the Cherokees who were forcibly marched to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, Vowell felt a certain affinity for the native Hawaiians, whose home was annexed by the United States in what she refers to as a "four-month orgy of imperialism."

Provocative words, yes, but Vowell somehow manages to present them in a certain offhand, "just sayin' " manner that takes the edge off the cynicism while still affording her a little dig. It helps that she's also pretty funny. She describes one earnest young missionary who makes the voyage from Massachusetts to Hawaii as "a motherless schoolmarm yearning to dress plain." And she quips that the uninformed observer might be tempted "to reduce the initial encounters between Hawaiians and missionaries to some sort of clunky prequel to Footloose."

Such lines are more than just middle-school-teacher devices designed to make history more readable. They also make it a little more palatable. "American history is a pretty grisly business. If you didn't have a sense of humor, you'd just weep," said Vowell, who's not sure she could stick to a dry, just-the-facts version of history if she tried. "I don't set out to be funny . . . I just write how I think," she said.

Along with humor, Vowell brings unusual insights to her history lessons. One of the central themes of the book is the idea of self-government and its sometimes paradoxical nature. Vowell is fascinated that a group of people who held the concept of self-government so dear would become party to such fierce hegemony as happened in Hawaii. "Many Americans thought it was a betrayal of what we stand for," Vowell said.

Her blunt observations, though, are counterbalanced with a genuine affection for the people she writes about. She loves the community spirit upon which New England was founded (and which, we might remind her, still defines it today). And, for obvious reasons, she is taken with the bookishness of our Yankee forefathers. "I love their braininess and their ability to live in their own heads," she said.

(Sarah Vowell will be at Red River Theatres on March 24 at 6 p.m. for a book-signing event presented by Gibson's Bookstore. Unfamiliar Fishes will be available for sale two days before the event. Guests who preorder and prepay will receive one free ticket to the event per book. Tickets not free with book purchase are $6 each and available both at Gibson's and at Red River. Book sales will also benefit Red River Theatres. To reserve a copy of the book or purchase tickets, visit gibsonsbookstore.com or redrivertheatres.com.)


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