An epic tale of inheritance, Charlotte MacDonald

The Hanging Sky
Shirley Corlett,
Mallinson Rendel, Wellington, 1990, $55 (Paper $39.95)

Beginning when ‘Man’ (this is no tale of humankind) first stepped upon the land ‘that had been part of Gondwanaland’ and ending with the present, The Hanging Sky is an epic tale woven around the inheritors of a fishstone. Carved in the moahunting days (c 1390by an aesthetically ‑inclined rangatira in the south, Maia, the stone is carried forward in Part 2 (1755) by Aria and her son Te Whetu. Forced to flee from devastation wrought by Mt Taranaki’s eruption, Aria finally travels far inland to the heart of Nga Ruata territory, her husband’s people. The fearsome Nga Ruata (thinly disguised Tuhoe) later wage war against their neighbours with astonishing success under the leadership of Te Whetu’s daughter: the invincible, all-powerful Pareuia. During her reign the Pakeha presence enters and it is in the divergent careers of her two eldest sons, Te Apa and Rapoka, that the mid-nineteenth-century struggles between Maori and Pakeha are portrayed. Te Apa becomes a Christian, Rapoka a Hauhau. When both are dead and Te Apa’s only son leaves New Zealand with a vaudeville company but still carrying the fishstone (1870), the central section concludes. The final part of the book, and the least convincing in its telling – for the characters are no longer heroic but sit about drinking cups of coffee and wander about in tee-shirts – takes up the saga of the fishstone in 1990Teena, challenged by her partner’s allegation that she has ‘lost her mana’ and by other disturbing events in her life is driven to search for her origins, to look for the real story behind the fragments of family history she has been told. Her search is ultimately rewarded though the price is high: two deaths and a betrayal.

The story is a vehicle for larger concerns, being heavily laden with symbols, portents, spiritual realms and history; stretching these over more than a millenium. As a kind of New Zealand Roots, it is an ambitious attempt to tell the story right through, beginning to end, – with plenty of cut and thrust along the way. A romantic warrior tradition is fully evoked, at times veering, disquietingly, into the sensationally brutal. The tale loses power as it comes closer to the present, as the shadow of known historical events hovers over the plot. Here the desire to match historical episodes and figures to the fictional tale is hard to resist and one is left rather dissatisfied somewhere between the historically known and the imaginary. There is, of course, history in fiction and fiction (at least in the form of imagination) in history; but where recognisably specific historical episodes are populated by fictional characters, the result is confusing.

The disintegration and demoralisation of both missionary and Nga Ruata communities which occur at the end of Part 3 also signify a crisis in the plot which is only very partially met by parcelling the superficial Abraham off with the troupe of entertainers. For there is no easy historical explanation – let alone solution – to the events which culminated in 1870This is the question which hangs over Teena also. The book concludes with her discovery of her past, but what is she to do with the knowledge she has painfully acquired? All the central characters share the dilemma of what to do with their knowledge, and their fate is meted out on a harsh scale of retribution. Teena’s discovery links the present with the ancient past but does not make the future any more predictable.

Charlotte Macdonald is the author of ‘A Woman of Good Character’ (Allen and Unwin/ Historical Branch), a study of single women as immigrant settlers in 19th-century New Zealand and the editor, with Bridget Williams, of ‘The Book of New Zealand Women’. She teaches in the Department of History at Victoria University of Wellington.


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