Tall tales and truths from an underrated writer, Judith Holloway

Dead Man’s Head
Jack Lasenby
McIndoe, $18.95

There is a special category of books written about the world of children which are, on the whole, written for children to read (or to have read to them) but whose themes, originality and sheer literariness make them almost as important and entertaining to adults as to children. A number of the novels by Margaret Mahy, Maurice Gee and Jack Lasenby come into this category. They deserve far more serious critical consideration than they get.

Jack Lasenby’s books, in particular, seem either to be ignored by the small coterie of people who review children’s books in the print media or to get little more than a mention tossed in with a number of other, often lesser, kids’ books.

His latest novel, Dead Man’s Head, a charmer of the first rank, is a case in point. In the four months since publication, it has been accorded a few lines here and there but has not yet made it into Duder’s Diary in three issues of the monthly Quote Unquote, nor into Karen du Fresne’s full page of reviews of the latest New Zealand children’s books in the October 29 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Dead Man’s Head (the name of a sort of plum duff!) is about a group of kids roving almost free, almost out of sight of the adults, in a small Waikato town in the 1930s, during the Depression. Though written in the third person, all the events are viewed through the innocent (and often skewwhiff) gaze of Denny Price. This perspective never falters and the reader is plunged straight into a world where adults are somewhere out there, rather weird puppets with strange obsessions that have nothing much to do with real life. The view is tender (though never sentimental) and nonjudgmental, the small and large gestures and the vernacular exactly observed ‑ reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield’s childhood stories, with touches of Mark Twain and J B Priestley. It’s that rare sort of book that can be shared with equal enjoyment by adults and kids, and is certain to become a classic.

As distinct from most of the books written for children or, youngish readers ‑ which are mostly narrative-driven and marred for adults by concessions to the lesser vocabulary of kids ‑ the books of Lasenby (like those by Mahy and Gee) bear the DNA of a literary stylist. His books and his extremely entertaining reading performances are some of the most familiar and most relished by schools and libraries throughout the land. Why, then, do book reviewers give him the cold shoulder?

One reason could be that he has been outspoken at times about what he contends are sexism and racism ‑ sometimes over what others might feel are quite mild examples of fair-go-ism. Examples: the Listener Women’s Book Festival ‑ to him, not simply a celebration by women of women writers, but a put-down of men writers; special monetary aid to Maori writers ‑ blatant race bigotry masquerading as “positive discrimination”. His belief is that we should concentrate on “inclusiveness”, otherwise we will end up down the same old cul-de-sacs ‑ only the power will simply have changed hands.

It is a serious proposition and is explored in his third novel, The Conjuror, which was published by Oxford in 1992 and was a finalist in the AIM Children’s Book Awards of that year, receiving the so-called honour award. A profoundly grim allegory of an imagined society, set in New Zealand sometime in the future, it examines the effect on the population of the combined tyrannies of tribalism, racism, élitism (specifically, inherited privilege through perceived genetic superiority), sexism, leader-worship and religious superstition.

Moory is a vulturine state whose inhabitants (of Brown, Grey or Blue caste) are deliberately kept divided against each other, brutalised with imposed ignorance, terrorised by the totalitarian rule of The Sisters, whose supreme leader is the Conjuror, a female of the required genealogy. But beyond The Sisters is said to exist the omniscient Mother Goddess, the creator of Moory, a “spiritual” force made manifest in the land, the river, the language and, above all, the dogma that control the society. The Sisters are helped to maintain their absolute power with the aid of the sacred icon of the religion ‑ the Mother Goddess’s three‑headed image carved in green stone ‑ and legions of guards, spies and tracker dogs, locks and fences. The lower orders are brainwashed into interpreting all the workings of nature (both in the present and in the past) as “signs” of the ever-watchfulness of the Mother Goddess whose needs they are forced to sacrifice themselves for.

It is the nightmare of apartheid, Haiti, Rwanda and the Spanish Inquisition rolled into one. Everyone’s traumatised except a handful of central characters who have managed to maintain a link with normality through the secret study of forbidden books. The adults in this group help the young ones to see through and resist the lies and propaganda they are fed, give them some knowledge of a civilised world beyond, teach them about the ideals which inform “civilisation”, and coach them in strategies that will help them keep their minds clear to think rationally and objectively about all things. The story follows two of these characters ‑ adolescents, a boy and a girl ‑ who manage to escape and then to endure incredible hardships in their quest to find and live in a civilised society.

The book is a brave and immensely imaginative attempt to analyse the differences between being civilised and uncivilised. I found it thought-provoking and felt very much in sympathy with most of the main propositions, but did not quite believe in the tedious violence nor in the relationship of the two young people after they escaped. To me, there was an absence of intimacy between them, an absence of love, though the two were supposed to be bound together by both. Nevertheless, my view was not shared by everyone; I know one teenage boy who considers it the best book he’s ever read and of another boy who was so distressed by the tragedy near the end he could not bring himself to read further.

In exploring the ideas in this book Lasenby stepped into marshy territory. To make his points about the dangers and absurdities of tribalism and religious mumbo-jumbo, he took the risk (I can hardly think innocently) of being accused of taking shots at some sacred cows of the Maori cultural renaissance, of feminism and of religion in general. The most powerful and ruthless people in Moory society are the Brown Sisters ‑ an obvious nose-thumb at the sort of feminists who sincerely believe that if we could but ditch the White Brothers and replace them with Wimmin (preferably not pale-skinned) the world would be a much safer place. Lasenby disagrees; it is power itself which tends to corrupt, so it is the vesting of power we must avoid or at least we must keep it out of the hands of amoral and immoral people of whatever gender or race.

Then there is the business of the élite Browns in the story being able to claim “noble” genealogical descent, while the poor Greys and Blues have nothing in their genes to commend them. As we all know, whakapapa is something of an obsession with powerful Maori families in contemporary New Zealand and, of course, it is also a mania with the European “aristocrats” and would-bes. Lasenby thinks all cognisance of value based on genealogical roots is irrelevant and inaccurate poppycock, not exactly a PC view to bandy around these days. There is also the practice of keeping The Knowledge and The Sacred Words exclusively in the ken of the élite and in investing objets d’art and phenomena of nature with sacred power and/or meaning. These and other such beliefs are typically the beliefs of pre-democratic and pre-scientific social arrangements; but, much closer to home, they are currently finding favour with some Maori eager to get in touch with what it must have meant to be Maori before the coming of Europeans. To Lasenby (and to me) these concepts are pernicious, spurious and unjust. The main point he makes in the book is that each person is responsible for being truthful, rational and just ‑ and this requires individual thinking and learning, not the imposition of traditional dogma.

At the other end of the scale of Lasenby’s writing are the marvellous leg-pulls, the three Uncle Trev books (Uncle Trev, 1991, Uncle Trev and the Great South Island Plan, 1991 and Uncle Trev and the Treaty of Waitangi, 1992, all Cape Catley) and Harry Wakatipu (1993, McIndoe). They are full of magical touches of humour and insight which make me scream with laughter.

What an invention Harry Wakatipu is! A great lumbering pack-horse who behaves like a selfish, manipulative brat-boy of about nine. I know the type well. They’re so hopeless and needy and devoid of anything resembling self-knowledge or integrity you think it must be your fault and you keep fixing things up for – until you crack and shoo them out of the kitchen (or classroom) forever. But they come back with some hard-luck story and another accusation to make you feel guilty, and you let them back into the warmth. Over and over again.

Well, imagine being a young deer culler new to the trade and being issued with a pack-horse like that by the Department of Forestry as you take off into the Vast Untrodden Ureweras. Poor bloke ‑ he’d gone there to escape his nagging mother, too. Not even the up-to-date New Age psycho-self-help theories of the erudite Captain Cooker, Biff Piddington (a huge boar whose life had been saved by the young deer culler) worked to turn Harry Wakatipu into a real Mate and decent Pack-horse. Tragic. But oh so funny! It would make a terrific television series. I can imagine Ian Mune’s voice rasping out from inside a Harry Wakatipu costume.

The Uncle Trev stories are similarly droll. Great yarns spun by Uncle Trev to a sickly kid (we’re never told whether it’s a girl or a boy) while its mother is out visiting, shopping or at a Women’s Institute meeting. Most of the stories give Lasenby a chance to poke fun at attitudes or groups that get up his nose. Uncle Trev is the kid’s mother’s brother and one of the most intriguing components of the stories is the relationship between the two. The mother is orderly and conscientious, as straight as a poker. She distrusts her brother whom she considers a reprobate with silly ideas who could improve himself on all fronts, but she has a grudging need of him to help mind the kid. He, on the other hand, finds his sister’s disapproval vastly stimulating and he really appreciates her cooking (especially her scones, pikelets and Louise cake), so he pretends to behave himself when she’s around, but the minute she’s out of sight he undermines her world with his wild and wacky stories ‑ then advises the kid that “it would be better not to mention this to your mother”. It’s the classic engagement of the bossy big sister and the irresponsible younger brother, deeply bonded in a tug-of-war of co‑dependence. Like all humorous stories, the Uncle Trevs are best read aloud and shared.

Lasenby’s first children’s novel, The Lake (1987, Oxford) was received with a great deal of acclaim; both here and in America. It established its author as a major literary force. Like Harry Wakatipu, it is set in the New Zealand bush and gives a vivid picture of the skills and strategies required to survive in there alone. It’s a wholly believable story, told in the first person, in which we follow the journey towards self-sufficiency of 12-year-old Ruth who runs away in anger and disgust from the unsavoury attentions of her stepfather. It’s the best book of a child working out what to do about incestuous advances I’ve ever read and Ruth has stayed in my memory for years.

His second novel, The Mangrove Summer (1988, Oxford) was awarded the Esther Glen Prize (for the “most distinguished contribution to literature for children”) by the Library Association Its setting is the maze of mangrove waterways running inland from Whitianga during the second world war and concerns the battles and problems of a group of kids who try to make themselves safe from the talked-about invasion of the Japanese. It is a gripping story, humane and tragic, full of believable characters and details which evoke an exact picture of the time.

Though (again, strangely) he has not yet won a monetary AIM Children’s Book Award or been the recipient of the Arts Council’s major children’s writing fellowship, Lasenby shared the Sargeson fellowship with Alan Duff in 1991 and was the Victoria University’s writing fellow in 1993. Having decided to commit himself to writing full-time, Lasenby left his lecturing job at Wellington College of Education eight years ago. Since then, he has had five novels and three short story collections published, and there is a sequel to Dead Man’s Head and an adult novel due out next year. Ten full-sized books in eight years is some output!

Judith Holloway is a writer who tutors in writing for children at Whitireia Polytechnic and teaches creative writing in schools. She is president of the Wellington Children’s Book Association.

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Posted in Children, Literature and Young adults
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