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.

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