Probably my favourite New Zealand historical novel is by an English author.
Rose Tremain’s The Colour I can re-read over and over again and I have to keep buying new copies as I give mine away to guests. It’s a beautifully written, literary novel, with a strong woman at its heart – the wonderful Harriet Salt (unsaid: of the earth). She gets on with things, Harriet, and I love her for it.
Harriet emigrates from Norfolk to Christchurch in the 1860s with her asinine husband Joseph Blackstone (black heart, perhaps? He is running away from a nasty crime) and his harpy mother.
Harriet my girl, it was never going to be easy.
They build a “cob house” and attempt to farm. Tremain’s descriptions of colonial life are so evocative and detailed she might have experienced them. Details are real and frustrating: the crumbling walls, the sickness, the snow and floods, isolation and irritation. Characters are numerous and colourful but never overblown – this is the decade of the gold rush and the South Island was indeed populated with thieves and prostitutes, prospectors and chancers, mystical Maoris and opium smokers.
There is a nice contrast with the neighbours, Dorothy and Toby Orchard (the name alone indicating these are successful colonials). The balance is important – the Orchards have the life to which Harriet and Joseph aspire, but step by step Joseph tramples on their chances of a successful future. He puts his house in the wrong place, builds from the wrong materials, doesn’t love his wife, carries sins, doesn’t prepare for weather and finally, and terminally, falls under the spell of a dusting of gold lifted from the creek. There’s not much Harriet can do. Joseph heads for the goldfields.
Harriet eventually follows and there is an intermingling of stories over the mountains and down to the west coast mines: the Orchard’s son and his dreamy Maori nurse Pare, Joseph’s many failures on the goldfields (both moral and economic) and Harriet’s chance relationship with a sympathetic Chinese gardener.
Harriet Salt is on my list of great female characters. I like to think her pioneering spirit lives on down the generations of “get on with it” New Zealand women.