It’s two weeks ago and I am on a boat heading to a small beach on the edge of a remote bay on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. A Pōhutukawa tree fills the seaward side of the bay: in bloom and gloriously arched across a deep blue sky. We jump out on the sand and pull up the boat, looking up at a small house in the cove painted by the afternoon sun; quiet, unpeopled, and breathe a ‘thank you’ to the occupiers who tend this place with so much care. Through the lower branches of the tree, up a steep bank, a white picket fence is visible.
Mrs Jewell & the Wreck of the General Grant is the story of the survivors of this most famous of shipwrecks. In 1866 the General Grant, carrying miners, their families and gold home from Melbourne struck towering cliffs that reared out of the sea at night. She was sucked into a cave and sank. Fourteen men and one woman (Mrs Jewell) made it ashore on the remote, sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands where they lived as castaways for eighteen months. This is the base for my new novel, due in June with Cuba Press, best-guessing to fill gaps in the survivors’ testimonies and reading between the lines in the context of the times and situation. Everything we know about the story has been told to us by the survivors and despite numerous searches along that wild coast for over 150 years, the ship and her gold has never been found.
But—and here we go again with history reasserting itself— that might be about to change. For that I blame swashbuckling shipwreck fanatic, Bill Day.
I read Waitapu over a couple of leisurely evenings and loved it. It’s a beautiful book, elegantly written and so evocative of every small town in New Zealand that we know from a drive past, or a dip into when we visit a grandparent. I remember going with a Wellington friend home to small town NZ and this takes me back there, the interconnected community, the talk across the fence, the visits. There was a sort of pride that everyone knew each other but an embarrassment, too. My friend couldn’t wait to be away again.
A while ago someone told me their cousin/sister-in-law (can’t remember) Charlotte Randall wrote New Zealand books and I so wish I could remember who it was because I want to thank them profusely. I’m reading my way through all Randall’s novels and thoroughly enjoying every page.
The Curative is set in Bedlam and is funny. I’ll reread it before reviewing, but thoroughly recommend it. The Bright Side of my Condition , again, is bleak and hilarious. Both of these books are told by people who, after some life-changing event, have little of anything left other than the insides of their heads but what goes on there is imaginative as hell. Randall seems to enjoy exploring the inner madness of men.
What a great book to follow my previous read, This Thing of Darkness. Both Thompson and Paula Morris’s book relate to the 19th Century notion of taking indigenous people from distant lands back to England to “civilise” them and show them off as curiosities. In Thompson’s book, Captain FitzRoy uplifts three Fuegians to ship home, and in Morris’s book the Rangitira travel voluntarily to England. Whichever way you look at it, this is manifest colonial exploitation.
Paula Morris is a descendent of Rangitira’s narrator, the wonderful Paratene Te Manu, Ngāti Wai, and she writes her tupuna with a sure voice. He comes across as a thoughtful and gracious man who, in 1886 while having his portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer, relates the story of his voyage to England some twenty years before.
Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go. I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.
For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.
‘Early this morning the sun rose round as an orange and hot as the fires of love, warming the already dust-dry ground outside Con-Lan’s schist cottage, while inside the whitewashed walls gleamed like skin on a pail of milk.’
Maxine Alterio’s writing is transporting. I copied phrases of this evocative elegance onto scraps of paper and peppered my desk with them. How’s this to set your mind soaring?
‘In the gorge the ice-heavy river resembles a mass of broken glass. On either side poppy seeds, dropped from the soles of boots worn by miners from California, germinate in pockets of dirt and shingle. Soon they will flower again and hang like coloured lanterns from the cliffs.’
History is people, and it’s the charismatic ones who live on in our imaginations. Today, to celebrate Jerningham Wakefield’s 201st birthday, here is an extract of his journals from August 1841. Some of his assumptions are uncomfortable today, some of his observations prescient, but judge the boy in context (where he is still problematic) and enjoy his lively voice. He was twenty-one when he wrote this.
In Wellington, progress had been made in the signs of civilisation. A large and well-furnished chemist’s shop, with the due allowance of red bottles and blue blue bottles, and glass jars full of tooth-brushes and sponges, and gay labels of quack pill and ointments, showed a broad front to the beach near Barrett’s hotel.
As this shop, which gloried in the sonorous title of ‘Medical Hall’, was close to the usual place of disembarkation for passengers, it became a much frequented morning lounge; especially as Dr. Dorset and another of our oldest medical friends were partners in the establishment. Many other equally gay shops began to ornament the bustling beach. Two clever rope-makers had begun the pursuit of their trade on a large scale, using the phormium tenax as prepared by the natives; and they received ample support from all classes, there being a considerable demand for small rope for the running rigging of ships, fishing-nets, and whale-lines for the stations in the Strait.
Rangihaeata and his followers had destroyed some of the bridges on the Porirua bridle-road, and in some places trees were purposely felled across the narrow path with a view to prevent the easy passage of travellers.
Tonight we’ll be putting on top hats (instant power) and eating pork, potatoes and puha and we’ll toast him a happy birthday. I’ll see if I can find a bottle of Hokianga red.
This pākehā life — an unsettled memior, by Alison Jones
What does it mean to be Pākehā?
There are hundreds of answers, all of them right. I am Pākehā. I know it, I feel it, though I wouldn’t presume to categorise anyone else, and I stand to be corrected at any time. To me, being Pākehā assumes some kind of relationship with Māori (even as simple as not-Māori) without necessarily defining what that relationship is.
Wake up and smell the sheep shit. Seriously. This book is so full of the smells of childhood I’m twelve years old again and on a farm holiday, awake before dawn in a drafty room excited about bottle feeding the lambs.
It’s different, of course, because this isn’t a holiday for Saunders and his family but their full-time lived experience; five generations on this land that they tend with deep affection and with a longevity that gives perspective to the everyday problems of farmers. There’s time. The budget can wait until after lambing. The planting will wait till the rain clears. The price for wool wont pay for the shearing this year and the crop prices are falling — these are long term problems they’ve faced before and they’re still here. They’ll sort it.