Re-charting our child myth, Heather Murray

Boy Overboard
by Peter Wells
Vintage New Zealand, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 319 9

Boy Overboard is a great novel. It is a work which will resonate for many a year, and become as important a marker of growing up in New Zealand as Janet Frame’s great rite of passage, Owls Do Cry. In no way is Peter Wells’ achievement any less than Frame’s.

The plot is thin: simply the story of Jamie Caughey, growing up in Auckland, trying to plot a course through the mysterious adult world the better to find out who he is and where he might fit in. We meet his school friends and follow him through the daily round of being a boy aged 11. Nothing more exotic than the school fancy dress party, the after-school athletics meetings, the simple pleasures of mucking about on the beach and trying to understand sex which he suspects holds the key to many of the unexplained mysteries. But when the writer has the poetic intensity of Wells, plot does not matter. The whole thing — story, character, mood — is woven into a great work of art, which wafts the reader along on a tide of beautifully evocative prose, the sort of thing one wants never to end, so rare is it.

New Zealand writers tend to do this sort of thing well. We have Mansfield’s creation of the Burnells and the Sheridans, Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s macabre evocations of a Taranaki youth, Maurice Gee writing about growing up in Nelson and Auckland, Frame, of course, Owen Marshall and Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s portraits of Ginny and Fag in Sydenham, to mention a few.

It has been one of our founding myths that this country is a great place to bring up children: kids grow up healthy, strong, and independent. That is because — I think this is how it goes — the food is good, the air is clean, we get the right medicine, our parents are caring, schools are first rate and our governments care. No need to suffer, to be hungry, to have no job or prospects. Kids here are secure. And perhaps there is an element of truth in this myth. There are worse places to raise kids and I do remember as a child looking over the latest bunch of British immigrant kids arriving at my school in the late 1940s and thinking how undernourished they looked, pale of leg, delicate, small for their age alongside us and hopeless at sport. We did seem a different, hardier breed.

The government, in particular the people in charge of immigration, have been happy to go along with this idea and maybe they do believe it. But to find more “truth” and less “myth” we have to turn to our creative writers.

Eldred-Grigg, as one might expect of a trained historian, takes the most overt look at the discrepancy between fact and fiction in Oracles & Miracles when he shows the two elements operating concurrently. As the creative writer, he shows the awfulness of Ginny and Fag’s life. At the same time he uses the persona of “the historian”, commenting on how this life was at odds with the official propaganda pouring out from the government and from the city of Christchurch about the high standard of living enjoyed by all citizens.

For clearly the myth and the truth are at variance and it is thanks to our creative writers that we see — or at least have confirmed our private suspicions — that our politicians have been and, alas, still are, a poor lot of self-serving purveyors of half-truths about the rearing of children. (Perhaps I might excuse my lack of dispassion here as due to having watched the 20/20 documentary on the nature of “treatment” adolescents received whilst encarcerated in Lake Alice psychiatric hospital right up until the 1970s. There are times when the dispassion is driven out of you.)

Wells does not take a political stance, nor wish to beat about the head anyone who errs in the rearing of Jamie and his friends. He simply shows the fears, the misunderstandings, the variance between child and adult, in particular how the child faces the unknown more or less alone and has to make the best of it.

Supported by a beautifully conveyed relationship with his older brother and by a friendship with “Ponky”, who is having her rough edges smoothed off at a private girls school, Jamie is indeed alone. His parents are holidaying in Australia for what seems an eternity and he stays with the well meaning Aunt Gilda who isn’t an aunt and the awful Uncle Ambrose who sells refrigerators and has the first electric razor in the district. Lying in the dark, Jamie listens to a beery party, Uncle Ambrose’s voice proclaiming, “Bejeez I felt it in the end of my little finger, I could tell I was off on my lucky streak…”, and feels the adult “sentimentality which [they] clearly need to mask the stink of their failures and loneliness”, Jamie hearing the party degenerate into a singing of, “Show me the way to go home”. “If only I could,” says Jamie.

If adults had to pass tests to become parents the way they are required to pass tests for driving cars, few would pass. Jamie’s parents desert their boys at a crucial time and don’t bother to write. The metalwork teacher is a nut case. The policeman has a nose for sexual deviance. Uncle Ambrose is financially crooked and attracted to small boys. Where might a boy turn? Boy Overboard is not merely another gritty story of the hard life. It is too well written and innovative in the telling for that. Here is Wells describing an athletics meeting:

Mr Carroll is the head official, I know his thinly whipped intensity, his rabid bad temper as he is surrounded by the brewling brouhaha of two hundred children. He is an old athlete. He wears his long skinny legs naked, unashamed of the thin daddy-long-legs which waver into nothing. He has a red cauliflower face, with lightning thrusts of purple, of congealed blood stopped in his veins. I know, under his towelling hat, his head is so bald it is painful to see. A chrome whistle dangles where his heart should be and restlessly, restlessly he paces the grass, flattening it down as he turns, revolves, spins on the ball of his feet like an animal caged and tied to the stake of the winter light. His whistle he blows, anxiously, forever.

Jamie is a wonderful reporter and contemplater of life’s mysteries. Clever, but not smart, empathetic but not a pushover for the bully. He loves his brother and Ponky, he is staunch and dependable. Altogether a delightful creation and real enough to touch a cord of response in the reader. Most of us like to think we were Jamies too. Wells has recreated the pasts of many of us. When will the adults ever learn?

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and critic.

• Peter Wells has been chosen by New Zealand Book Council as the inaugural participant in a writer exchange programme with Australia.

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