Vivid pictures of 19th century New Zealand, Kay Harrison

Swag and Tucker
Margaret Hall,
McIndoe Publishers, $18.95

The Runaway Settlers
Elsie Locke,
Hazard Press, $16.95

These delightful books, set in New Zealand’s colonial days, bring to life the harsh and tender experiences of families in the New Zealand of the gold rushes and cob huts.

Margaret Hall’s Swag and Tucker is about the families who settled between Hokitika and Haast after the gold rush. The story is told by teenager Mary Kendrick, whose Irish parents and eight brothers and sisters form a community with two other families. The community works the paddocks for gold and clears the inland bush to graze cattle. When the spring tides cut away the beach, they work the black sands for gold. The story traces the excitement and danger of life, strangers who threaten and rob, accidents and infection, the struggle to teach and learn in a place where arithmetic seems irrelevant, the tedium of women’s work and the thrill of first love.

The strongest element of this historical novel is its setting – the wild southern Westland coast. The vast expanse of the Tasman, the thunderous surf, the wind – disfigured trees, the inland bush filled with ancient birdsong. The fear that nature inspires, the tragedy and the triumph in living so closely with the land. These images are the most vivid and rewarding aspect of the novel.

Although Swag and Tucker colourfully portrays the hardships and insecurity of an isolated community, the overall picture is that of a sanitised past and (happy) family. There is no mention of the cost of nine pregnancies on loyal and shadowy ‘mother’, virtually no mention of Maori, and very little treatment of the heroine’s lot – remaining at home while brother takes the family savings for St Patrick’s College and an education.

The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke is a welcome reprint from Hazard Press. It tells the story of the Small family, mother and six children, who escape to New Zealand from the violent and drunken Mr Small in New South Wales. On arriving in New Zealand, they work for Cracroft Wilson at Cashmere. But the boys are treated harshly and soon the family settles at Governor’s Bay near Lyttleton where Mrs Small (now called Mrs Phipps) becomes renowned for the fruit and vegetables she grows.

The family lives with the fear that one day Mr Small will find them and that without the protection of law they will once again be vulnerable to his violence. But they prosper and soon have cattle to sell. Mrs Phipps undertakes the hazardous overland journey to the West Coast to sell beef cattle to gold prospectors hungry for fresh meal. The story ends in happy days, the Phipps family secure and free, making their colonial dreams come true.

This is an excellent children’s historical novel. Within the context of family life, Locke portrays the lot of women in the nineteenth century: Mrs Small’s lack of rights and options in the face of her husband’s abuse; the family’s lack of security against unscrupulous employers; and the determination and courage of women and children.

The novel is of particular importance to Canterbury children. The land, plants and birds that fill the book with colour and life, as well as the landmarks of Canterbury’s heritage, such as the Bridle Path, will come to life for young Cantabrians. But all New Zealand children will find much that is real in the experiences of nineteenth century people, of Pakeha settlers, Maori and gold rush hopefuls, as well as in the depictions of the land, the hardships, the insecurity and the awkward relations between the races.

The ability to enter imaginatively into the past is an undernourished skill. These novels will give interested students, good readers and the very able worthwhile extension. More importantly, they will give them pleasure,

 

Kay Harrison is head of history and social studies at Aotea College.

 

 

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