Boxed in, Kathryn Walls

The Power of Place: Landscape in New Zealand Childrens Fiction
Diane Hebley
University of Otago Press
$39.95
ISBN 1 8771 33 47 7

Diane Hebley’s useful introduction to New Zealand writing for children, Off the SIMM was published in 1980. This new book is further evidence of her academic commitment to the field. It provides a quite extraordinarily comprehensive account of its declared subject, and it is obvious that Hebley writes from an even wider knowledge – which embraces the earlier history of New Zealand childrens writing and writing in genres (like the picture book) excluded from The Power of Place. Its value as a reference book is reinforced by two appendices, one surveying critical approaches to New Zealand childrens literature (the question of landscape is here put aside), and one which categorises all the works discussed according to their geographical locations – from Northland to Stewart Island (and beyond).

The usefulness of The Power of Place as a reference book cannot be doubted. But it is not compelling as a piece of analysis. The explanation for this may lie in the parameters of Hebley’s topic. The first of these, “landscape”, is problematic because landscape is only one aspect of place – while at the same time being an aspect which is difficult to limit with any precision. Hebley’s discussion goes beyond untamed nature (she discusses farms, roads and small towns), but her focus on what she has decided counts as landscape prevents her from paying any real attention to cities. Her discussion of Catalogue of the Universe, for example, while it examines the significance of the sparsely populated hill where Angela lives with her mother Dido, largely ignores Margaret Mahys fascinating evocation of the city as a perilous terrain through which Angela and her lover-to-be, Tycho, must pass as questers. This is a great pity, partly because Mahys city and hill invite comparison.

The second difficulty I have is with Hebleys apparent assumption that landscape “out there” can somehow be lassoed and brought into the corral of the literary text. Such a notion is – probably coincidentally – implied by the books cover, featuring as it does Hebleys own superb photograph of Lyttelton Harbour. While films may be photographed on location”, texts are different. Writers create their landscapes, and it is their writing which determines their character and function – whether, for instance, those landscapes are neutral depictions of real places (they never are, in my experience); Whether they are proc actions of charade’s, and so on.

A case in point is Katherine Mansfields “At the Bay”. Although we tend to think of “At the Bay” as a story set in Eastbourne” – as if the real late 19th century Eastbourne were a static (if beautiful and beautifully described) backdrop to its action – part of its brilliance lies in the fact that its structure is determined not by the actions of its characters, but by the passing of time, played out in the landscape. As Mansfield creates it, this landscape has more vitality and even (or so it seems) initiative than one or two of the ennui-ridden characters who dwell within it. To be fair, some of Hebleys discussions do convey an appreciation of this essential point. She writes perceptively on such effects as the ambiguity of the setting of Maurice Duggan’s The Fabulous McFanes, the mood created by the cool day and clouded beach in Taylor’s My Summer of the Lions, and space as a metaphor for time in Joan de Hamel’s Take the Long Path.

Generally, however, the comprehensiveness of The Power of Place makes for oversimplification and reductiveness where only close reading can yield genuine insights.

Hebley’s confinement of her study to New Zealand books written within two decades also proves an obstacle to achieving worthwhile conclusions. How can one approach landscape in literature without surveying its earliest functions in myth and allegory, and its later significance within romanticism? How can one assess the New Zealandness of a literary landscape without making extensive reference to other literatures? Hebley appears to believe that by examining over twenty years she can identify significant trends, concluding, for example, that it is not until the 1980s that children’s writers develop a confidence in treating caves and tunnels with power and complexity”.

This conclusion is unconvincing for a number of reasons, one of which is that it seems forced. Hebley must have felt that she had to contain her discussion in this way in order to be comprehensive within her chosen area – her study does I believe embrace every relevant book, good or bad, written between 1970 and 1989. As I have already indicated, I doubt whether the contingent sacrifice of perspectives was worth making – and I would add that this comprehensiveness undermines the readability of The Power of Place as well as its capacity to say something significant. In her attempt to marshal a massive amount of material, Hebley has produced an obsessively organized text which lacks momentum.

To explain: Hebleys system is to group texts according to the elements of landscape which feature within them (Chapter I: “Harbour and Beach”, and so on). Within each chapter, Hebley normally divides her material into decades, and subdivides according to some additional principle. Hebley outlines her scheme in her introduction and begins each new chapter by referring to it. Similarly, each chapter is equipped with an introductory abstract and a concluding recapitulation. This wearisome repetition gives added definition to the boxes which contain her discussion. Yet these boxes inhibit the development of a satisfyingly sustained argument.

The only sections in which arguments get a chance are the smallest units, the subdivisions within chapters, where Hebley is more flexible and where her organisation sometimes reflects a valuable observation. In Chapter V (“Lake and River”) – having made the reasonably interesting observation that the more human violence there is in a novel, the more its author will refer to earthquakes and volcanic activity – Hebley chooses to discuss texts in an ascending order of violence. At the broader levels of organisation, however, Hebley is strangely wedded to categories which seem quite arbitrary in relation to literature. Thus, introducing her discussion of lakes, she writes: Since swamps are not put into a separate class of lakes they are included here among landslide lakes”. But to the imagination, swamps are as distinct from lakes as Bunyan’s Slough of Despond is from the Delectable Mountains. So inflexibly does Hebley adhere to her scheme that the same texts, if they include more than one man or landscape feature (as very many do), reappear in several different chapters. For a moment I thought I had lost my place when a quotation (from Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters) which I had only just read in Chapter II (“Harbour and Beach”) reappeared only eleven pages further on in Chapter III (“Mountains and Bush”).

Another negative by-product of Hebley’s exhaustiveness is the overly concentrated character of much – though not all – of her discussion. Noting the failure of some novels to convey the responses of their characters in a way likely to move readers, Hebley does a moment in Gloria Gibson’s Mouse at School: “When budding-writer Rachel sees the dog-bite on her brother’s arm, it means only that ‘the tone of voice is important”‘. This example is baffling – it lacks the contextualization which we require if we are to understand and agree (or disagree) with Hebley’s judgement. Reduced to plot summaries, some excellent novels sound absurd. Margaret Mahy’s Aliens in the Family, we are told, involves three groups of people: a family of step-parents and three children in present time, three men from the 1830s and from the future, Bond, a Galgonqua from outer space, pursued for his knowledge by the apparently rival powers, the Wirdegen [etc]”.

Hebley’s work has other weaknesses (weaknesses, that is, which cannot be explained as by-products of her conscientious comprehensiveness). She tends, in spite of the pressure of her material, to introduce distracting side-issues. Her discussion of The Changeover begins with the information that it is a novel .the germ of which lies as far back as Pillycock’s Shop -information which has nothing to do with the subject of her study. Hebley’s prose is often wordy and unclear. Instead of noting that children’s writers (or perhaps Hebley is referring to herself as critic) have promoted conservation, she writes: “the ramifications of my study have additional value in terms of ecology and conservation upon which depends our survival on earth”.

When she says that in successive books William Taylor endows his characters with increasing power”, it is difficult to know whether she is describing the personalities of Taylor’s characters or commending his characterisation.

Hebley seems afraid to use her own words for ideas which are common currency – quoting supposed authorities even where there is nothing original or particularly eloquent about their formulations. Thus the phrase often violent and spectacular” (taken from an essay in a book published by the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) crops up in the sentence, “The reality of the landscape is that it owes its origins to its ‘often violent and spectacular geological forces, notably volcanic and tectonic.” Her logic too is sometimes elusive. In an attempt to explain the appeal of the island to the imagination of the child, Hebley quotes Clifford Fadiman: “all children are marooned in a sea of grown-ups. They are isolated in their own sensibility. One might well take issue with this statement, since it employs the very metaphor it pretends to explain. Hebley does not do so, however. Instead she goes on to present as a gloss the theory of another critic: “To put it more simply in J R Townsend’s words: ‘We all wonder how we would manage if ever we had to fend for ourselves. She does not appear to notice that Townsend’s view is actually quite different from Fadimans. Most people writing a study as extensive as Hebley’s are going to be guilty of some stylistic and logical lapses, but one would expect these to have been eliminated by an editor, particularly when the publisher is a university press.

Hebley looks for an awareness of the uniquely indigenous aspects of the New Zealand landscape in her authors. It is surprising, therefore, that she herself instinctively characterises autumn as “the time of leaf fall”. Hebley does not – or at least not in a thoroughgoing fashion – confront the way in which exotic elements are mixed with the indigenous in the New Zealand landscape, making it less than straightforward for writers to emphasise our uniqueness through references to it. Nor does she make more than incidental mention of the subtle ways in which European literary conventions involving nature are preserved in some of the most conscientiously indigenous of New Zealand texts.

My remaining reservations may be seen as subjective. I cannot agree that the fact that a relatively small amount of critical attention is given to children’s writing amounts to its visual suppression based on a prejudice against women’s work”.

Literary criticism is valuable because it informs us and sharpens our general I..l.\J1 LJJ»J~\»l.A.IJ \¢J.;.u V vs; awareness; it does not need to be justified as a quasi-political activity. A more general tendency to, as it were, promote socially relevant writing may lie behind some other assertions which gave me pause. Commending William Taylor for exploring “the difference between those who own land and those who work on it for someone else”, Hebley adds that this difference is “not often admitted to in New Zealand”.

Surely she is wrong here – one thinks of Allen Curnow’s “House and Land, for instance, in which the historian asks the cowman, “Wasn’t this the site of the original homestead?” receiving the laconic (and socially telling) reply, “Couldn’t tell you I just live here”.

Indeed, widely read though she undoubtedly is, Hebley occasionally writes as if the only author she has read other than the right-thinking one under discussion is Frank Haden at his most reactionary. Noting that William Taylor represents a poor Maori as morally superior to a rich Pakeha, she commends him for reversing stereotypes. I share Hebley’s high estimation of Taylor. But I cannot agree that he is being original here, since – in fiction at least (and perhaps also in life, although this is not really the point) – the underprivileged are nearly always the goodies. And when it comes to the way in which literature relates to life, I have strong misgivings about the assumption, made by many of the writers quoted and implicitly endorsed by Hebley in Appendix A, that children gain relatively little from books which do not reflect their own real-life context. As the story of Jack and the Beanstalk reminds us, you sometimes have to enter another world in order to capture the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Finally, may I express the hope that New Zealand children’s writers will resist Hebley’s recommendation that they stud their works with quotations from local literature “in order to reinforce a New Zealand mindscape. This recommendation seems to me to be based on a false analogy between New Zealand’s fragile ecology on the one hand, and its psychology (or collective imagination, at least) on the other.

Kathryn Walls lectures in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington where she runs a course on children’s literature.

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