The Smuggler’s Wife – book review

Kitty, Amber & Band of Gold, by Deborah Challinor

These books are a lot of fun. I defy anybody to read just the one. And I’ve just seen there is a fourth, published after a six year (and at least 5 book) gap. Hooray! I’m going back in. Continue reading “The Smuggler’s Wife – book review”

William Curling Young

I went to the Nelson archives to find Captain Arthur Wakefield, agent of the New Zealand Company and uncle to Jerningham (about whom I’m writing a book). There are folders of transcribed letters, mostly from Arthur to his brother William Wakefield. I passed over the stiff official missives, but there are lots of gossipy, friendly letters, all signed yours affy, as if the word “affectionately” was too formal for such brotherly love. They are intimate letters and even a hundred and seventy-seven years later feel immediate, the sentiment easy to read. Arthur has a mixed retrospective reputation but I like him and he has a seat at my table any time he wants to show up.

But I got side-tracked by another story in the archives.  Filed between Arthur’s letters were those of William Curling Young, writing home to England from colonial Nelson. William was 28.

His father was a director of the New Zealand Company Continue reading “William Curling Young”

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review

The Imaginary lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

Interesting book!
Tina Marereti is long listed for the Ockham Book awards and I so hope she wins. That’s unfair, because I haven’t read any of the others, (yet, but if you send them, I will, I will!)  But if you’ve been following my book reviews you’ll know by now that I’m a sucker for Victorian era fiction and this one’s a corker. Continue reading “The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review”

The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.

 

Mr Peacock’s Possessions – book review

Mr Peacock’s possessions, by Lydia Syson

Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions sets the characters and the scene slowly – you need to understand the background before you can follow the story. So don’t be impatient, sit quietly as the curious and impulsive Kalala introduces you to his life in the Pacific, his brother, the pastor Solomona, and their small group of god fearing men who are shipped to an island where a white man and his family are struggling to settle.

Lizzie’s story comes next, she tells of family life on an isolated island, the difficulties faced by her mother and many children as they live castaway style, and the struggles of her delicate older brother, who is a disappointment to their very physical and driven father. Lizzie is her father’s favourite and she loves him unreservedly. Until she has to confront a truth that questions all she believes of him.

The family are swindled by a ship’s captain, they suffer rats and weevils and have some small successes, but there is an undercurrent of suspense growing. There are bones on the island, pigs’ bones, says Mr Peacock, as he hastily buries them.  Kalala and the Islanders arrive, Lizzie’s brother goes missing and they all spread out over the island to search for him.

Mr Peacock is a possessive man. Lydia Syson makes his frustrations seem understandable in the rough and rugged man’s world scattered around the very edges of Victoria’s imperial petticoats. Peacock had struggled for years, as many did, slowly realising through constant failures that the dream of owning colonial land was not a promise for everyone. He owned his wife and his children and when the opportunity came to buy and island he owned that, too.  Our main story begins when he brings in his “Kanaka boys,” to work his land and gradually young Lizzie and the rest of the family begin to question her father’s possessive attitudes.

Kalala and the Islanders’ story merges with Lizzie’s and a story that has gone before them on the island, and the mystery of the missing brother hangs over them all.

The reading just gets better and better and the story becomes utterly compelling.  My advice is to set aside a good chunk of time when you get near the end, there are some things that need to be finished.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions is a terrific book for a book club read, there are lots of questions around possessiveness and ownership, success and failure, compassion. You can discuss colonial attitudes to women, race, land, the power of religion. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying Monday Island, where the Peacock’s live, is in fact Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, and now a marine reserve and a place of extraordinary biodiversity. It featured on the migration route for early Pacific voyagers and for those of us who love islands it has a fascinating history all of its own.

Head’s up for my book club – this one is my next choice.

 

The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.

The Naturalist – book review

The naturalist, by Thom Conroy (more fan fiction than book review!)

I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.

It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition.  He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.

They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.

I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)

But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze.  Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.

They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction.  There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere.  Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up.  I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.

Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, by Fiona Farrell

If you’re a library browser, pick this one up – although in the Hastings City Library you’ll have to look in the Science Fiction category (and I’m not sure whether to be the smart-arse and tell them or not).

Fiona Farrell’s Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is lovely historical fiction set in my favourite era, mid-19th Century, when those Victorians were exporting their exuberant passions all over the globe and wreaking havoc on the balance of things.

It’s a strangely paced book – all build up to the journey, and then the shock and resolution is hasty. Farrell wrote this over a decade (and many books) ago and I’ll review her latest book next (Decline and Fall on Savage Street) which is a masterpiece of pace – though again, unconventional.

There’s lots of unconventionality to enjoy in Mr Allbone. He is a young poacher and his speciality is ferrets, which he uses to flush out rabbits for the pot. He has a clutch of young ‘uns at home to feed – brothers and sisters. His mother lies beneath the wild garlic outside St Peter’s wall (a typically understated, but telling phrase). Along with the nest at home Allbones himself is ferret-like; a “skinny lad, the runt of the litter who had grown quick and cunning and able to squeeze his way though any gap or cranny, scaling soffit and drainpipe, up trees, under hedges.”

Farrell gives us lots of fascinating detail about ferret life: catching, keeping, illnesses and breeding. Lots about breeding, how to put the cob to the slut, never the other way around or he could kill her, leave them for a couple of ferocious hours and then sometimes it is necessary to drag the cob off because they don’t know when to stop. Etc.

Allbones has the job of collecting ferrets to take to the colony of New Zealand because previous settlers took rabbits. You can sing it to the tune of:  I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.

He (of course) falls for the beautiful and enigmatic Eugenia, whose thoughts and feelings remain obscure. She is the granddaughter of Allbones’ employer and is both extremely observant of animals and beguilingly naive of people. Poor kid.

The period detail is expertly executed and full of sound and colour. Farrell is particularly evocative with her smells; the stench of 412 humans, 202 caged ferrets, 66 stoats, 82 weasels and 3200 pigeons (plus stray rats, mice, seabirds and the odd shark dissected on deck) in a tub in the tropical heat seems to be part of my memory now, as if I had been on board the Adam and Eve as she sailed south. It is as unpleasant as the story that is unexpectedly burst open as they race across the roaring 40s to New Zealand.

There’s an earlier name swap which hangs over the book and for which I expect a resolution which doesn’t happen. That’s distracting. And the whimsical, rather emotionless ending is disturbing. But the Victorians were a disturbing lot, with their twisted morality and God given authority to take what they want and rearrange the world to their liking.

And, often as not, they got away with it.

It’s a quick book, a good one as a Book Club read on the lighter side but still with lots of fascinating topics, big and small, to discuss and excellent writing from a very polished New Zealand author.

 

Here’s another Fiona Farrell, very different, equally good: Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

 

 

 

The Wakefields on Waitangi Day

Colonial characters in New Zealand

I’ve became obsessed with the Wakefields while writing a novel about a fictional family of early settlers. I spent months inventing complex characters and dramas for my story.  But marching into my research and sprawling themselves along every  plot-line came the Wakefields and I can’t keep them out: generations of reckless, debauched, manipulative, egotistical, philandering creative geniuses with the complexities of an entire ecosystem. I’ve had to dump my imaginary characters and write about the Wakefields.  They’re too good to ignore.

You can’t make this shit up.

A quick dip into Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s past, (he who invented the system of colonisation that formed the original settlements of Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Nelson and Christchurch) will tell anyone that much of his formula for colonialsation originated from Newgate Prison, where he was incarcerated for the family pastime of abducting and wedding a young girl in the hope her dad would give him a leg up in politics. He didn’t, but it was touch and go.

Edward Gibbon’ son Jerningham sailed around the world in a 382 ton barque to New Zealand in 1839, back and forward across Cook Straight and up and down the West Coast, wrangling with Te Rauparaha and drinking with Te Rangihaeata, negotiating land deals with local chiefs, staying a step ahead of Hobson and the Crown,  adventuring up rivers in waka to meet war parties, whaling and trading, all the while writing brilliant and evocative journals he turned into bestselling propaganda for the colony. Pretty swashbuckling stuff for a nineteen-year-old lad. 

William Wakefield did a lot of the early colonial leg work diligently and intelligently. He put “Wellington” on the map (owed him a political favour) and kept the missionaries from inheriting the earth, which is a plus point in my books. He was probably quite a decent man when not in thrall to brother Edward Gibbon or reining in wild young Jerningham. He seriously lost his judgement when he accepted wayward bankrupt brother Daniel into New Zealand under a false name (leaving his gambling debts and the wife he had infected with an unpleasant disease) and helped establish him as Crown Solicitor.

 

What have the Wakefields ever done for us?  It’s a complex question. They are mostly forgotten as we focus on the dominant role of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, but at the time the Wakefields were potentially far more influential than Hobson. Which is why I was astonished and delighted to open the Dominion Post today to see Wakefield’s face highlighting an opinion piece on the Treaty, with his very noble quote:

“The establishment of the same rights and same obligations can only be fair between parties who have the same power in the same field.”

It’s well said and certainly resonates on Waitangi Day, though imbalance of power obviously wasn’t top of Wakefield’s mind when he abducted 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner.

The Wakefields were an extraordinary family, men with huge personal ambition and a genuine desire to improve the system for those without power, although their methods were often dubious and ambiguous. They all seemed to verge on insanity – and I haven’t even mentioned Felix or the father.    I both applaud them and strongly disapprove of them and never quite know what to think of them on any given day.

Love them or hate them, they make a hell of a story.