Love and war, Christine Johnston

Ned and Katina: A True Love Story
Patricia Grace
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143007401

Who could resist a love story set on Crete in 1945? Obviously Patricia Grace couldn’t. The celebrated author was approached by Ned’s and Katina’s family with an enticing narrative and no shortage of photographs and documents. Grace was up for the challenge and she does an admirable job, weaving a number of threads into a satisfying and cohesive story.

A recipient of numerous literary awards both in this country and overseas, Grace has achieved a unique literary status. Her first book, Waiariki, appearing in 1975, was the first short story collection published by a Maori woman. After six short story collections, six novels, five works for children and a collaboration with artist Robyn Kahukiwa, Grace has written “a true love story”.

Ned and Katina transports the reader into a past that is meticulously researched and vividly described. Due weight is given to Ned’s whakapapa, which takes us back as far as colonial times. The vehicle is the story but the story is of course the point of the exercise. And it’s a first rate story; Ned and Katina has elements of biography, love story and war history. Ned’s adventures read like ripping yarns even when rendered in Grace’s restrained writing style.

First we have to get to know the protagonists. Grace devotes the first hundred-odd pages to Ned, his background and his war adventures, before describing Katina’s family and their life in the village of Sklavopoula on the island of Crete. The third section deals with the lives of Ned and Katina after their marriage, their three sons, jobs, business ventures, trips backs to Crete and their work for Maori and Greek communities. Throughout it is Ned who develops as the central “character” while Katina remains a more mysterious presence.

Edward David Nathan is a son of the Far North (of Te Roroa, Ngati Whatua, Ngapuhi and Scottish descent), wounded during the ill-judged attempt to retake the Maleme airfield and on the run in the rugged hill country of Crete. Katina Toraki is a teacher and daughter of the village priest in whose house Ned Nathan of the 28th (Maori) Battalion and a companion were sheltering, awaiting medical attention.

When Ned met Katina for the first time, he was struck by her beauty – “The moment I saw her, I fell in love with her,” he said later – but he was still hoping to make it to Sfakia where ships were evacuating Allied troops to Egypt. He pushed on against the doctor’s advice, but all in vain. The last boat had gone, and those left behind on the beach were taken prisoner.

Rather than give themselves up, Ned and other Allied servicemen, many of whom were Australians and New Zealanders, took to the hills. Luckily for them, the local people were on their side. Villagers gave the fugitives Greek names and civilian clothes and took them to their hearts. Andreas Louyiakis of Prodromi treated Ned like his own son, teaching him the language and providing hiding places. But since it was dangerous to stay in one place for long, the men were constantly on the move.

Katina’s family in Sklavopoula also gave Ned refuge and Katina helped improve his grasp of Greek, but as the Germans tightened their grip on Crete they began to actively seek out fugitives in remote villages and impose lethal punishment on locals who assisted them. When it became too dangerous, Ned was shown a cave to hide in. The Cretan Resistance had good networks for sending and receiving information about enemy movements and the whereabouts of Allied servicemen.

Through these contacts Ned learnt about another Maori soldier, said to be very sick, hiding on the north coast, a man he came to believe was his cousin Joe Angell. When Ned left Sklavopoula to look for Joe, he spoke to Katina for the first time about his feelings for her. Her response was not encouraging, though later, when he returned to get quinine for his cousin, they promised to wait for one another.

As an educated Cretan woman whose family occupied an important place in village life, Katina Toraki lived successfully in two worlds. Unlike most village girls, she had attended secondary school in a neighbouring town and then teachers’ college in Iraklion. In the late 1930s she took up a post as sole-charge teacher in her own village, teaching 50 children, living again in her parents’ house, running the household and cultivating the vegetable garden. Life was hard for Cretans during the German occupation but they had a culture of generosity and hospitality towards those who respected their way of life. No wonder Ned Nathan felt at home there.

When fate took Ned away from Crete, to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, he wrote often to Katina but was careful not to implicate her or her family. She seems to have written only once, as a conspicuous correspondence would have aroused the suspicions of the German authorities. Until he returned to Crete after the war, Ned was never sure that Katina shared his feelings. Quite apart from the secrecy required because of Ned’s fugitive status, her culture demanded discretion of a woman in her position. Ned had known not to push her; he’d depended on her family’s protection for his very life and he loved them dearly.

Ned and Katina is a magical story of a man’s persistent passion and a woman’s quiet devotion in a period of danger and heightened excitement. The hand-written letters and the photographs enhance the story and add the flavour of the times. I found myself looking at details on fabrics, the cut of the dresses, the footwear. But mostly I scrutinised photographs of Katina, wondering what this woman was thinking and feeling. Ned wasn’t sure, and neither are we.

As Katina later told her granddaughter Katy, “I left sad. I left sad of course to leave my people, but again, because I loved Pappous [Grandfather] I just followed him.”

She did what women have always done when they love a man outside their circle: she just followed him:

If Katina was homesick she never spoke of it, unless to Ned. If there were difficult times she kept these to herself. In a more general observation, she once commented that marrying Ned and coming to live in his village, close to his family, could be compared with marrying and going to live in a husband’s village on Crete. The difference was that in this case the villages were 19,000 kilometres apart.

 

Only in fairy tales and romances is marriage the end of the story. In 1945 Ned’s and Katina’s life together was just beginning. They settled in Northland, raised three sons, moving to Wellington in the 1950s to set up the Café Crete in Trentham. They returned to Crete regularly over the years. Both were heavily involved in community affairs, sponsoring Cretan immigrants, promoting recognition of the bravery of Cretans during WWII. Ned was elected to the Porirua City Council and was active in various Maori causes – an urban marae in Porirua, and as a member of the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s. He was awarded the CBE shortly before his death in 1987. Katina died nine years later.

To do justice to a man whose life was full and whose interests were diverse, Grace is inclusive. The years Ned spent on Crete were a small but significant part of a long and rich life. He was a towering figure in more ways than one, focused on achievement in a period when Maori faced many obstacles to improving their lives.

Grace backgrounds the Maori activism of the 1970s and 80s – the land march of 1975, which Ned joined, and even the occupation of Bastion Point, in which he played no part. This seems like too much information, most of which is familiar to New Zealand readers.  Did the author have other readers in mind?

Regardless, Ned and Katina is a gripping and enjoyable read. Stories are woven together with great skill, so that what was surely a demanding assignment for Grace looks graceful and easy.

 

Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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