Chappy, by Patricia Grace, is a domestic story of a community whose relationships are entwined and confusing in the way real life is confusing.
“I told you that Aki was your uncle by double adoption. That first adoption was when Dorothea became mother to Moana-Rose and me, and we became his sisters.” The timeline jumps around and the narrators switch about, it’s a rambling story that could be told by mates sitting around on old sofas with a few beers, interrupting each other and backtracking. Some incidents feel honest and factual, others edited with the retelling. This is the way family histories are, and there is truth in both.
The catalyst for the story being told is the (dare I say, Gen-Y) crisis of young Daniel in Switzerland, of New Zealand descent, wanting to find himself. He is the investigative reporter, if you like. I think the discovery of his family helps to heal him. I like to think so, anyway, although the story is not about him. “There’s a much more interesting story than one of a spoilt brat with his own bank account who had to try and kill himself…”
For me, the breadline living of the whanau that Daniel finds back home is a pretty typical mid-century NZ story, Maori or Pakeha. Rural life was precarious: a lot of self sufficiency, some number 8 wire, generosity and sharing, the value of a storyteller to an introverted community, both the welcoming and the fear of strangers. The necessity of going away and how grounded you feel when you make it back.
Chappy Star is a stranger, a Japanese stowaway on a ship. Maori seaman Aki stumbles across him and takes him home to the marae, where he finds kindred spirits. The differences between ghost-like Chappy and the warm and candid Oriwa, with whom he falls in love, are made to appear superficial – language, culture, nationality are nothing beside their attachment. Their love survives years of racially induced separation and misunderstandings. Oriwa understands this as she disentangles her family stories for Daniel. Maybe we all need to tell our lives as stories to understand them.
The novel is about roots and coming home – from Hawaii, where Aki washes up, from Switzerland where Daniel is born, and the confusion that ensues when home means two or more places. Chappy weaves between his cultural home in Japan, his adopted home in Hawaii and his spiritual home with Oriwa in New Zealand.
The story of Moonface made me cry. There is a lost child in many stories, but none so poignantly as here. Moonface is Aki’s adored little brother. At the end of one long afternoon, Moonface insists on following Aki to the spring, but he lies down in the ferns and falls asleep. Aki fills the billy, and when he turns around the boy is gone. In his mind, forever, is “- the cold spring water, the silver tin, water silvered, the creaking birds, the pouring, the boy invisible, the unspeaking leaves, the trail of torches, the voices calling, the crying, the wailing of all the grandmothers in the world, the waiting, the ferny nest.” It seems natural that Aki would absorb his lost brother into his soul to become his moral compass, the well of his tenderness. “Go home,” Moonface says, when Aki has been away at sea too long and needs to get his feet back on family ground.
Patricia Grace writes with lovely, sparse descriptions. Aki: “I was at the woodpile sawing stove-lengths from manuka trunks I’d brought down from the slopes. About mid-morning. There was mist soft-footing about the hills, grey like old photos.” It’s all you need, a whole scene implied from a good choice of words.
There’s a moral to Chappy, which is spelled out very clearly (in case you missed it) as Daniel sums up the story at the close. He was born of the generation that left the home fires, and now is a wealthy outsider looking back in. “…I am who I am. I understand that now. I’m not about to chuck it all away and go barefoot, and I don’t wannabe a wannabe. So, no matter where I go or what else I undertake, I’ll continue to increase my understanding of this part of myself that I embrace with all my heart. I’ll keep in touch, work back and forth from wherever I am in the world and contribute from the depth and core of me.”
There you go, kids.