Whose story is it, anyway? Kirstie Archer

The Fox Boy: The Story of an Abducted Child
Peter Walker
Bloomsbury, $29.95,
ISBN 0747556466

Browsing in a Wellington bookshop, it was with delight  that I picked up a copy of The Fox Boy. Here appeared to be a book about our history with broad appeal. The blurb promised that the author’s “gripping narrative sweeps the reader along on a great curious adventure”. Many fine New Zealand history books have been published, but most are weighty tomes which are a bit daunting to the general reader, particularly so for those of us whose New Zealand history education was lamentable. For this reason many are on the lookout for books in the genre of popular history. The Fox Boy fits the bill, but reads more like historical fiction.

Peter Walker’s book tells the story of Ngatau Omahuru, a young Maori boy, who in 1869 was abducted after the battle at the Beak of the Bird, one of the major events of the Taranaki “Land Wars”. The presumably terrified child was taken to Wanganui and photographed dressed as an English gentleman, with his hair combed and a hand in his pocket. The photo was sold as postcards. It was this picture that sparked Walker’s interest in the boy’s story.

Omahuru was adopted by and named after William Fox, who went on to become Prime Minister of New Zealand. William Fox Omahuru lived at the Native Hostelry in Wellington for three years, cohabiting with Maori chiefs and dignitaries, and attending a school in Thorndon. Later, he entered the Fox household. As a teenager, Omahuru became a clerk in the firm of lawyer and ornithologist Walter Buller, where his Maori background was seen as an asset in the firm’s lucrative land transactions business. However, he eventually abandoned his Pakeha family and colleagues and joined the pacifist community at Parihaka. Walker suggests that William Fox’s anger at Omahuru’s leaving was a pivotal factor in his decision to attack the community.

Omahuru’s story is told against the background of two major bulwarks of 19th-century British society: imperialism and the notion of racial superiority. As Walker points out, Omahuru’s abduction took place only a few years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and colonists were already quoting the theory of natural selection to justify their right to dominate other races. Local news-papers briefly reported Omahuru’s abduction with general approval, and William Fox appears to have been admired for generously saving him.

Walker was clearly frustrated at the minimal sources and resources available to him in researching this book. He has gone to considerable effort, getting to know Omahuru’s whanau and researching correspondence and newspaper sources. However, Omahuru’s story often disappears in the book as we read descriptions of the events and culture of the times. Walker’s accounts of the New Zealand Wars and the events at Parihaka appear to be competent, based as they are on James Belich’s I Shall Not Die: Titokowaru’s War, Hazel Riseborough’s Days of Darkness: Taranaki 1878-1884 and Dick Scott’s Ask that Mountain. I enjoyed Walker’s description of Wellington in the 1870s, with its boarding houses, schools, sailing ships and fledgling parliament. Some delightful information is included, such as that Mount Tinakore translates as Mount Nothing-for-Dinner, a reference to the time that an employer forgot to provide dinner for his hungry workers. I was also fascinated to read about the ancient Maori highway from Foxton to Otaki.

Another thread to the book is the author’s own personal journey. Interlaced with the historical narrative are accounts of his research work, recollections of his childhood, and reflections on the state of the nation. While on the one hand this helps to give the book a modern perspective, some serious editing would have improved the book im-measurably. Do we really need to read a lengthy account of the author having a nightmare? Walker’s comparison of Omahuru’s journey to Wellington by stagecoach in 1869 with his own journey by train sometime in the 1970s is similarly redundant, as are his recollections of boarding school experiences. Some aspects of this thread of the book are useful and illustrative, but many are merely self-indulgent.

Another problem with the book is the lack of referencing. Walker provides a list of sources at the back of the book, but little in the way of references throughout the text. Early on, a direct quotation of four paragraphs is attributed only to “a Maori account”. Omissions like this let down both the sources and the reader. Furthermore, as Walker gives graphic descriptions of people, places and events, the reader is left wondering how much is fact and how much the author’s invention. Walker gives very detailed accounts of life in the Fox and Buller households; presumably he has made them up. Perhaps they have come from Omahuru’s whanau, but if that is the case why not say so? Readers need to have confidence in an author’s claims; providing references would not have made The Fox Boy any the less readable.

Walker’s style of writing also presents problems. The story is interesting enough without banal and convoluted embellishments such as the following sentence:

When Sir William offered to send the boy to him, Buller, with his wide-set eyes and great rayed-out whiskers, must have looked like the cat that got the cream, or rather one that has been offered full rights over the canary, and what a valuable little songbird this one was!

 

As New Zealanders, we naturally want to read about ourselves, and I look forward to more authors reclaiming real stories from our past, such as this one, and re-presenting them in an informative way. In The Fox Boy, Walker has chosen to blur the genres of history, historical novel and personal memoir. The result -– unreliable as history, unsatisfying as fiction or autobiography – left this reader, at least, perplexed and disappointed.

 

Kirstie Archer has recently returned from London, where she worked as a book review editor.

 

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Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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