Children’s fiction Wilderness tips, Kathryn Walls

The Tears of Harry Wakatipu
Jack Lasenby
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 1877361437

Stories about individuals surviving in the wilderness have a long history. The Old Testament represents the wilderness as the place of escape from the oppression and corruption of Egypt. Whenever the ideal society founded in the Promised Land reverted to “oppression and perverseness” (Isaiah 30:12), the old escape route tended to be idealised in its place. It became the resort of prophets, even a potential Eden as in Isaiah 51:3. But although civilised people have always sought the wilderness, escape is never absolute: foragers start gardening (although the cultivated wilderness is a contradiction in terms), pioneers establish new civilisations, and explorers return to tell the tale.

Indeed, the chief way in which most of us experience the wilderness now is by reading about it. The paradox implicit here is acknowledged in the books we read: the original Robinson Crusoe salvages from his shipwreck “European” seeds, a carpenter’s chest, “ammunition and arms”, and – very significantly – books (navigational manuals and Bibles). Thus, while the classic story of survival in the wilderness criticises life in society (Defoe’s first chapter dwells on warfare and social injustice), it also functions as a tribute to the achievements of civilisation. If civilisation is both bad and good, so is its antithesis. Savages (by definition uncivilised) mirror its evils, while the amenable Man Friday suggests an equation between the primitive and the (as it were) naturally good.

The Tears of Harry Wakatipu is the latest in a series of four collections of stories that Jack Lasenby began in 1993. These stories are impressively thoroughgoing parodies of Lasenby’s serious novels for children. Most of the latter are in the broad tradition of the Robinsonade – a term coined in the mid-19th century, when wildernesses were increasing in literature at about the rate at which they were decreasing in reality.

Lasenby’s first substantial Robinsonade is The Lake (1987). Here Ruth Green – conditioned by family holidays and a teacher who has inspired his class to learn survival skills – escapes from an abusive stepfather into what Lasenby later referred to laughingly in the Harry Wakatipu stories as “the Vast Untrodden Ureweras”. Ruth’s survival is testimony in part to her previous experience, although she is also fortunate in finding supplies – including food, tools, “a beautiful little rifle”, and books (one about trees, but also a few pages of a Zane Grey). Eventually, however, Ruth encounters the very threat she left home to escape. She narrowly evades attack by a would-be rapist (comparable to Defoe’s cannibals), thanks to the intervention of a Man Friday figure in the person of Tommy, a Maori. Tommy, it turns out, has come to live by the lake in order to escape his own personal demons (specifically, his past incestuous relationship with his daughter). Surviving Tommy’s death, and having benefited from his intimate knowledge of the bush, Ruth eventually returns home. She has matured to the point where, at 15, she knows she will be able to confront her stepfather and weak mother, and protect her vulnerable sister.

Lasenby’s next book was to be another deeply satisfying story in the same tradition, The Mangrove Summer (1989). During WWII, two families leave their respective towns to spend an extended summer in their Coromandel bach. While there the children, convinced of an imminent Japanese invasion, run away from their adult relatives to live in hiding (outdoors). Having taken some supplies with them (including books), and discovered some conveniently abandoned vegetable gardens and orchards, they manage to hunt and gather almost enough food to keep going. For the two youngest, however, life under the rule of the tyrannical eldest proves insufferable. They escape but, as they try to find their way back to their parents, one of the children actually dies.

As in The Lake, much attention is paid to processes so that the novel takes on the character of a survival manual. But The Mangrove Summer is in some ways quite different. Here the part of Crusoe’s savages seems to be played by the Japanese, who never do invade – although the children mistake the frantically searching adults for enemy soldiers. Similarly, the “good savage” role is taken by a member of a prominent farming (or “colonial”) family of conscientious objectors. The children learn not so much how strong they are, but how wrong they were – wrong, indeed, to indulge their fantasy of survival in the wilderness. Lasenby downplays the tragedy, however. The bereaved mother is remarkably (and, for the adult reader, unbelievably) composed in the face of the death of her youngest child. The same child’s natural longing for its mother (a longing that the survivor must repress) resurfaces in a very different key in the Harry Wakatipu books.

In The Conjuror (1992), there is no question of survival being child’s play in any sense. The story reads to some degree like a wilderness narrative from the very beginning. This is because it is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the dominant inhabitants of New Zealand have been reduced to a primitive and superstitious existence suggestive of a pre-historic past. At the same time, the society within which the child hero Johnny has to live exhibits in the usual exaggerated form what the author judges to be the vices of contemporary civilisation. The result is that the novel combines what in Defoe were the equally negative but distinct roles of the savage and civilised communities.

Targeting feminism and “reverse” racism, Lasenby’s nightmarish vision in The Conjuror seems to me ill-judged, even paranoid (although Judith Holloway, in a valuable article published in the December 1994 issue of NZB, offers a more sympathetic perspective). Among the “Moory” people, women rule over men, and “Browns” have enslaved the “Greys” (grey-eyed people), while actively persecuting the “Blues” with a fascist cruelty and resolve. Encouraged by an enlightened older Brown, and in the company of his daughter Hannah (heir apparent to the throne of the false goddess of Moory), the hero Johnny (a Grey slave) manages to escape. It is with the flight of the young pair, and their search for the “island of ideas”, that the novel is most recognisable as a survival narrative. Like Moses, Hannah does not reach the goal (she is murdered near the end), but Johnny and their daughter Esther do, joining a noble society which (rejoicing in the possession of ancient libraries) has embraced Enlightenment values.

While the dystopic dimension of The Conjuror is disquieting, the quartet of novels beginning with Because We Were the Travellers (1998) suggests some constructive re-thinking on Lasenby’s part. First, the essential catastrophe in The Travellers is man-made. It is global warming that has forced the travellers into their primitive, nomadic existence. Secondly, Lasenby dispenses with the “othering” that (I would argue) is as implicit in his creation of the evil Browns as it is explicit in their treatment of the Greys and Blues. Unlike Johnny, Ish (the hero) is thoroughly integrated into his tribe of which his father is leader. He is only banished from it, after his father’s death, by his father’s jealous successor.

With all its flaws, then, this future generation (for whose fate we are criminally responsible) stands for us. At the same time, Johnny the child hero demonstrates the possibility of change for the better. Whether writing for children makes a writer dwell upon the future, or whether concern for the future drives a writer to address children, Lasenby is typical in using futuristic fiction to pass the baton to the next generation. His books are survival handbooks that combine the practical, historical and imaginative (even Biblical) functions of the books his own characters love to read.

Lasenby’s novels differ from Robinson Crusoe in two important respects. First, they are usually set not on a distant island but here in New Zealand. Their attention to the local landscape and flora and fauna is extraordinarily detailed and informative. In the post-apocalypse novels these dimensions have been tragically altered, but the old outlines are there, as in the brilliantly re-named ruins (“Orklun”, “Towmranoo”). At the same time, Lasenby’s perspective on the landscape is oddly colonial. Ish is a shepherd, and exotic animals abound as if they belong, although they have in fact contributed to the ecological destruction that is the starting point of the Travellers sequence. In this, as in his (perhaps envious) ambivalence when it comes to allowing priority to Maori in the wilderness context, Lasenby seems somewhat reactionary.

Secondly, unlike Defoe, Lasenby explicitly writes both for and about children. That said, Robinson Crusoe has long been considered suitable for children as well as adults; the novel was, in fact, first adapted for children in 1768. It cannot be coincidental that this was precisely the time which saw the invention of the (exclusively adult) psychological novel, which to an extent displaced the kind of adventure stories that had previously appealed to adults and children alike. Children, because they lack the ability to determine even their own bed-time, respond to stories in which the main character models what J A Appleyard has called “agency”. In survival stories, of course, agency is of the essence.

As in Barry Crump’s A Good Keen Man, the main characters of the Harry Wakatipu stories are the narrator (a deer-culler) and his “mate” the eponymous Harry Wakatipu. Harry is not only useless; he’s a horse. In fact, he’s a packhorse (the point being, of course, that he refuses to function as one). Freud’s comparison of the (infantile) id to a horse resisting the control of its rider (the ego) is surely relevant here. The self-centred Harry, who desires condensed milk and similar comforts above all else, stands at the opposite extreme from active heroes like Johnny and Ish, who take on adult responsibilities at a young age.

Harry drags the narrator down to his own level so that he too narrows his horizons to a quasi-sibling rivalry for the infantile rewards of food, warmth, the upper hand, and the approval of the authority figure, the Field Officer. It is this rivalry that provides the foundation for all the stories. Significantly, the narrator has retreated to the bush in the first place because he doesn’t want to help his mother with the humdrum chores necessary, in the real world at least, for survival – nor to please her by “get[ting] a girlfriend and get[ting] married”. To the extent that the narrator wants to be an adult (and he is tormented by erotic thoughts, as well as by a fear of being thought effeminate), it is in an essentially immature way.

Here, for anyone not entirely convinced by the ingenious improvisations of Lasenby’s serious heroes, may be found Harry Wakatipu trapping the narrator in a Brobdingnagian web of what is quite literally number eight wire (coated in condensed milk). Here, for those who sometimes skip Lasenby’s detailed accounts of how the hero made (for instance) a bag out of skins, is the story of how Harry learned to knit (misinterpreting his teacher, he has disarmingly insisted that he would rather learn to knit than “knot”). Here, in the place of the wisdom of the aged mentor, is the arbitrary, ever-changing and impossible-to-obey “Rule Three” (of the “Deer Culler’s Handbook”). Privations, enemies, defensive strategies: all are exaggerated and rendered ridiculous.

In The Tears of Harry Wakatipu, reading assumes a role so central as to swallow up the volume’s claim to be a wilderness story at all. Instead of hunting, the protagonists habitually retreat to their sleeping bags and armchairs by the fire in order to read, be read to, or to swap the tall stories that echo the master story in which they themselves are characters. As for the master story itself, it is told with such an air of on-the-spot invention and so many ironic winks at the audience, that one is only occasionally granted suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the sophistication of the narrator at some points is rather at odds with the naivety he displays at others (especially in his role as the fall guy in his own stories). This, together with the fact that he is unnamed, means that the narrator fails to come into focus. (Lasenby’s Uncle Trev persona offers an obvious contrast here.) The Harry Wakatipu stories should ideally therefore be read aloud, preferably by someone as roguishly charming as Jack Lasenby himself.

 

Kathryn Walls teaches both period courses and contemporary children’s literature in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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