Elsie Locke (1912-2001)
History-writing properly done is a complicated business, calling in varying measures and forms for effort, skill and artistry. It requires diligent research to gather the factual raw material. It requires subtlety to assemble the shards of information and to elicit meanings from them. And it requires imagination to impart a sense of authenticity to accounts of other people’s experiences and to descriptions of the events of times past.
Elsie Locke’s work, rich in its mingling of the little-known and of the familiar but freshly presented, satisfies these requirements admirably. Her book Peace People (1992), for instance, is a solidly informed monograph history of, as the sub-title states, “Peace Activities in New Zealand”. It is also a partisan work, deriving from a deeply felt – and often acted upon – moral concern for the cause of peace, but it draws its authority not from any passionate display of indignation but from its detailed and objective treatment of the subject. What could easily have been a tract thus becomes a reference book of enduring value, but without relinquishing the power to disturb and persuade at the same time as it informs.
It is, though, in her style of re-recreating New Zealand history and in making it available to younger readers that Elsie achieved most in her writing. As she wrote in 1984, this was not easy:
Personally I have never recognised any boundary between writing for children and writing for adults. It turned out that my social history booklets were indeed taken seriously by serious students, since they included much that is original or inaccessible. The present selection is offered to the general public.
A young audience lacks the experience of the adult world, and therefore the writer must take extra care to be thorough and open in exploring our country’s past. Exploring is the key. I had to tramp out a path through thousands of words for every word I wrote; and when it came to times within living memory I listened to thousands of words, too. I expected to find insights and surprises, but it went further than this. I had to rethink my whole approach to New Zealand history … This was always difficult and sometimes painful.
In a corpus of thoroughly researched and imaginatively rounded works she made the subject not only accessible but attractive to a large readership. In a series of six booklets issued by that once bounteous nursery of talent, the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education be-tween 1962 and 1968, and later republished in a single volume, The Kauri and the Willow (1984), she told the story from 1840 to 1920. A further booklet published in 1971 by Whitcombe and Tombs told it from 1920 to 1960. Then there is her history of Maori-Pakeha relationships, Two Peoples, One Land, and a clutch of historical novels, most notably The Runaway Settlers (1965) and A Canoe in the Mist (1984). They constitute a substantial oeuvre.
Characteristic of all these works, fiction and non-fiction alike, is their accurate detailed content and an emphasis on the personal experience of, and observations of, named individuals. Elsie Locke’s is not the history of anonymous abstractions such as forces, trends and movements. Rather, the past as she presents it is a well-populated landscape, or, as becomes a storyteller, an assemblage of the characters involved in such processes. Anyone opening her books will immediately encounter people. Their lives constitute a history in which the past takes on the immediacy of the present.
Yet at the same time she offers a singularly wide view of the past, one that encompasses Maori and Pakeha, young and old, male and female – just the way it did when the past was the present, and the way the present will be when it, too, is fused, into the past, and when the future has arrived.
Hugh Laracy teaches in the Department of History at the University of Auckland. A version of this appreciation was first published in History Now in May 1998.