The Drover’s Road Collection: Adventures in New Zealand
Bethlehem Books & Ignatius Press, $35.95 [approx],
Joyce West published Drover’s Road with Dent in London in 1953. Two further volumes about Gay Allan and the other Drover’s Road characters (Cape Lost and The Golden Country) appeared in 1963 and 1965. Drover’s Road was quite a success for West: there were two reprints, the two sequels, and in 1963 a reissue in Dent’s Pennant series, alongside children’s classics like Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. Indeed, Streatfield herself was quoted on the dustjacket of this later edition: “The author has not only written a good book about her country; in writing it she has done her country a service” – a comment that left a New Zealand child in no doubt that the intended reader of the book lived elsewhere.
These publishing details are significant. It’s the sad case that, like many other good New Zealand children’s books of the past, Drover’s Road was published in Britain and has been impossible to buy here for decades, except secondhand. The reappearance of the series in America must therefore be welcomed, and I am the more grateful for this one-volume publication of the trilogy by Bethlehem Books because since 2002 I have listed Drover’s Road on my children’s literature course at the University of Auckland. It has been one of the more successful books on the course, measured by essays written.
I chose to teach Drover’s Road because I enjoyed it as a child. If I had been asked what I liked about the book when I first read it in the 1960s, I suppose I would have said that I liked the setting in hilly sheep country, which was what I knew, the humorous episodes that revolved around school and farm life and ponies and other animals, and the good time Gay has with a boy cousin who is her companion and friend. (I longed for boys to play with, but older brothers in my experience were aloof spirits, associating mainly with each other.) A few years later, when I was a student, I would probably have made a different answer to the same question, something about the Allan family at Drover’s Road representing a social class from which I had always felt excluded, the social class that owned substantial sheep stations, and hunted, and entered its superior mounts in the A & P open jumping classes, and sent the children off to boarding school.
I now know that West’s parents were country schoolteachers, like my own, and that her narrator Gay’s strong sense of the glory of Dunsany Allan (“My Uncle Dunsany is the master of Drover’s Road”) might originate in West’s own feelings of exclusion from a dominant class that – no matter how democratic and friendly – was strongly conscious of its own social importance. In the 1950s the family sheep farm was our central productive unit. I was used to the good opinion sheep farmers had of themselves, regarding the rest of the country as (so they often said) “living off our backs”.
My Auckland students, however, enjoy the books now for quite other reasons. In class we talk about Gay as narrator and character, the ferocity with which Gay faces down her virtual orphanhood, her yearning for Dunsany’s regard, the reading and storytelling that sustain the women in her world, and the feeling of something – melancholy, longing, loss – that often suffuses her narrative and occasionally seems to control it. Of course, I said to myself, as I wrote my lectures and Drover’s Road took shape before me, of course. It’s really about Aunt Belle’s mandarin tree – which opens chapter two:
Of all the trees that grow in the garden at Drover’s Road the mandarin is my favourite. It is neat and round in shape, very green and close-leaved, and set with tiny, spicy, golden fruit like fairy apples. When you peel the fruit the skin is loose and comes away in your fingers, leaving the small tidy sections all ready to eat. The peel has a lovely spicy scent; whenever I smell mandarin oranges I seem to be trying to remember something that happened very long ago and far away.
Aunt Belle’s garden is one of the book’s many versions of the good place, of which her kitchen, a kind of cornucopia, is another representation, and the farm itself, Drover’s Road, presents the most powerful image. Delicious fruit comes easily to the hand from the mandarin tree, and at Drover’s Road all kinds of help, food, love and healing come easily to all kinds of guests, invalids, fugitives, no-hopers, and dependants (beginning with Gay herself, whose parents have abandoned her in what seems a brutally careless manner). These dependants also include Gay’s three cousins, her virtual sibs, whose parents died in a car crash, and an assorted string of other characters: the lost horse Moonlight and her daughter Gentle Annie, poor cousin Celia, Cousin Ben the war hero, Aunt Gertrude’s downtrodden daughter Emmeline, the stray dog Bugle, Mr Lukey and the goat Henrietta, a girl called Rosemary, and, finally, Gay’s own missing father. Many of these characters have suffered loss, and at Drover’s Road they often find what they desire. Cousin Ben and Celia make a match of it, and when Rosemary is lost and found, the crisis reunites her widowed mother with an old flame. Weddings have a redemptive effect in the Drover’s Road series and often the recovery of past loss involves a marriage, with the children acting as matchmakers. In A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982), Betty Gilderdale claims that the trilogy plus The Year of the Shining Cuckoo (1961) contain 12 weddings in all. Neither I nor my daughters (who read these books in the 90s) ever thought for a moment that was a wedding too many.
Yet “something that happened very long ago and far away” continues to haunt Drover’s Road despite this strong counter-pattern of happy retrievals of past loss. Aunt Belle herself, the wise and loving substitute mother of the four children at the farm, lost her fiancé in a river-crossing accident on her wedding-day. The ghost of an earlier owner, Mad MacTavish, supposedly haunts the farmhouse (he was killed by his horse). A central chapter of the book involves an evening with the family photograph album and Aunt Belle’s old stories – some sad, some funny. Great-grandfather Allan broke his back in a sawmilling accident, though he later recovered, assisted by a loving fiancée who insisted on marrying him though he was paralysed from the neck down. In short, West is one of those obsessive novelists who tells the same story many times. But it’s a fine story, a romance which celebrates the Utopian present (West’s characters are frequently convulsed with laughter) but equally often registers the trauma and dislocation of settlement. Gay herself is often at risk from the dangers of floods, landslips, earthquakes, accidents.
The best explanation for West’s preoccupations is found in Stephen Turner’s essay “Settlement as Forgetting” in Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand (1999). Settler society, according to Turner, is unable to know itself at home in a new land:
The new country is the site of contradictory demands: the need, ultimately, to forget the old country, and the need to ignore people who already inhabit the new country. To resist the indigenous presence the settler must retain some sense of the old-country self to be able to draw on a strong and authoritative identity. But in order to settle in the new country, to find oneself at home, the settler must forget the old country and become acclimatised, that is, discover a new-country identity.
Many of West’s repeated narrative strategies unconsciously seek ways out of this box. Pioneer tales of Mad MacTavish and Great-grandfather Allan obscure original Maori ownership of the land at Drover’s Road. Difference from (but relatedness to) British society is raised by tales of English visitors, and characters like Aunt Gertrude whose snobbery is imitatively English. The local hunt at Drover’s Road is West’s best symbol of an imitative, once-British institution which glories in its inglorious difference, its make-do, motley membership, its open, unpretentious, democratic ways. (“New Zealanders are most themselves,” says Turner, “when they play sport.”) The process of forgetting, though, entails effacing Maori almost completely despite the novel’s setting on the East Coast. Ted Marshall the shepherd, for instance, is described as Maori, but this claim is given no substance.
Cape Lost begins with panache, revising romance in near-Gothic directions. Gay tumbles into a cavelike (or gravelike) grave at Cape Lost and finds herself sharing it with the skeleton of long-dead Great-aunt Vanessa. Later, in gratitude for the recovery of his long-lost wife’s remains, Great-uncle Garnet leaves his farm to Gay. A strengthening proto-feminism is manifest in Gay’s acquisition of her own farm. She trains at Massey and in The Golden Country takes on the farm alone, struggling to get her male employees and manager to take her seriously, and finally choosing to marry Clive Scott, a bridegroom spectacularly deprived of loved ones, but a good farmer with some useful spare cash. Gay’s impending marriage, which promises the teamwork of equals, is the climax of the series. The increasingly visible Maori characters in the later volumes are interestingly involved in bringing this about. A Maori youth, a car thief called Dovie Dean, recently escaped from prison, has been befriended and hidden by Aunt Belle and Gay at Cape Lost; it is subsequently made clear that Gay is only hauled by Clive out of the near-fatal waters of yet another flood because Dovie Dean has handed on some vital information. Maori are thus finally incorporated on the one hand into West’s patterns of exile, loss and homelessness and into those of recovery, redemption, and social interconnection on the other. As Utopian visions go, this one has had a lasting appeal for generations of New Zealanders.
Rose Lovell-Smith teaches in the Department of English at the University of Auckland.