Nearly Seventeen: New Zealand Stories
Tessa Duder (ed),
These seventeen stories by New Zealand writers and one short play by Tessa Duder clearly focus on teenage girls. Each of the stories has girls as central to the story or action, and each develops an experience of particular concern to the central character. The introduction, written by Duder, explains fully the background to the collection and her reasons for including each story. Her analysis is valuable, and she summarises very clearly the difficulties she sees young women facing in the 1990s: ‘Both for male and female, there are fewer social and cultural boundaries than there were twenty, even ten, years ago. Young women today have to be street-smart. You have to find for yourselves limits that adults, themselves confused, angry and struggling after a decade of massive change, cannot or will not give you.’ She obviously expects most of her readers to be young women, but young men too will gain much from recognising and understanding the experiences of their female contemporaries.
The stories are short, the writing meets Duder’s own standards of clarity and precision, and there is variety of pace, style and story. Many of the authors are well known to teenage and young adult readers, but it is regrettable, as Duder says, that more Maori writers did not submit contributions for the collection, and that there are only two stories with a multi-cultural element – Gwenda Paul’s ‘Arohanui’ and the Rarotongan background of Graeme Long’s ‘The Copier’.
The stories cover a wide variety of theme. There is adventure and outdoors from Alan Bunn and Judith White and a 1950 period piece from Gaelyn Gordon that questions parental standards of the time. There are stories covering emerging ambition and determination, physical development and relationships, the contrast of innocence and shame, of security and insecurity, from writers such as Michael Gifkins, Fiona Farrell, Ruth Corrin Paula Boock and Fiona Kidman. There is romance, too, but not of the Mills and Boon kind fantasised by the girls in Alan Bunn’s ‘Life’s a Laugh’ as they consider their own literary efforts. ‘Princes’ there are, but of the ‘real-life boy’ variety, and some of them have very clay feet.
There is sometimes humour, as with the expression of personal experience or the resolution of events depicted in William Taylor’s and David Somerset’s stories. Overall, however, the reader feels a strong sense of dignity in the girls involved, as they respond positively and purposefully, and with growing maturity. There is pain, too, as they are involved in situations outside their control, or in family or parental relationships.
Duder’s own contribution has an interesting provenance. As readers will know, the portrayal of Joan of Arc was important to the Alex story, and her research into the France of 1429 for this provided the basis for her short play that she hopes will be appropriate for reading or classroom performance. Here, violence and death are very near and very real as Joan lives with her brothers and sisters through the time of pillage and rape before she runs away to become a soldier and join the Dauphin. The similarity between the heroic figure of Joan and the Olympic champion Alex in the quartet stories has been recognised and would no doubt not be ignored in New Zealand classrooms.
The last section of the book contains brief biographical notes on the authors. In some cases these are too brief to be of value to the inquiring reader, and since such details are not easy to find elsewhere, further information would have been helpful.
It seems appropriate to this review to quote and identify with the final paragraph of Duder’s introduction: ‘To all the fine writers here included (and to those who also submitted stories), my thanks. Your stories have made me laugh and cry and wonder about these strange, challenging times we live in, and will do the same for many others.’
Marny Bradley is a teacher-librarian at Otumoetai College in Tauranga.