Recently, when I called in to see my brother, we looked through a box of books and other items that were all in some way associated with our father.
My father grew up in a small community where I often stayed as a child. From time to time, people, some related to us, some not, some Maori, some Pakeha, would come to stay – for a few weeks, months, years. As children, we didn’t know where these people had come from or how they came to be living among us. It was the same when my father was young. A small collection of books, Ned in the Woods, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a few others, were given to him by an Englishman who lived with one of our families in Hongoeka Bay for a time. His name, as shown on ex-libris, was Thomas Chamberlin Chamberlin. Besides giving the books to my father, Thomas Chamberlin Chamberlin had offered to sponsor him to Te Aute College. However, those were difficult times and there were other circumstances that prevented my father from being able to go away to boarding school.
In 1944 my father joined the war in Italy with Maori Battalion reinforcements. Though, once home, he rarely spoke of war, he did speak of Italian villages and people, and of the wonders of Rome and the Vatican. It was from Rome that he sent home a parcel containing, among other things, a collection of war propaganda that he’d gathered up, and (of more interest to me at the time) two copies of The Adventures of Pinocchio by C Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini 1826-1890), one in the original Italian, the other an English translation.
The booklets, leaflets and cuttings containing war propaganda were made up of mainly anti-Soviet and anti-Jewish material, but there were also poems, cartoons, etc, warning soldiers about what could be going on with wives and girlfriends while they were away fighting a useless war, the sole purpose of which was to bring wealth to unscrupulous warmongers: “Dividends are growing with the casualty lists! Therefore die faster, Pals!” The booklets show the fine creases of having been folded into small packages to fit into capsules that were dropped onto the fields of war.
After not having seen The Adventures of Pinocchio for more than 40 years (the English version: the Italian version was not in the box), it was good to pick it up again, to peruse and re-read. The book’s jacket is of embossed leatherette – birds among vines, fruit and flowers – and from there on in there is plenty more, by way of illustration and text, to draw a reader towards the first chapter. I remembered, as I re-examined, that the book had been: “Dedicated to the boys and girls of every colour, age and country”, and that I had always enjoyed reading the List of Contents, announced by a little soldier with a bugle, which added up to a synopsis of the book. A sample – “Geppeto Makes Pinocchio Some New Feet, and Sells his Own Coat to Buy Him a Primer”. Before turning the page to the first chapter, we come across the dancing Pinocchio announcing … and now for my adventures! I found the black and white drawings by Joyce Mercer as moving as I did when I first encountered them.
But also on the way to chapter one were items of interest that the book had not been born with – pencil jottings, a stamped date – “9 JUL 1943”, and “32 N.Z. FD. REGT. 6 N.Z. DIV.” stamped on the inside cover and title page.
I was seven or eight when the book arrived, a keen reader, and though Pinocchio must have stretched my reading abilities at the time, I remember what an exciting and satisfying experience that first read was. In my hands was a “grown-up” book (250 pages, small print, long words and sentences) that I could read and mostly understand. I re-read it and absorbed it over the years. (I also “read” the Italian version, out of loyalty I suppose. Why would my father have sent it if he hadn’t expected me to read it?)
On re-reading, I can see how the story would have drawn me in, with the idea of a character emerging from a piece of wood that “Laughed and Cried Like a Baby”. It was a lively engagement with a great set of characters, Pinocchio being the one to break one’s heart many times over. And although, along with adventure, misadventure, heartbreak, hope and all, the book tells the very moral tale (not the thing to do these days) of what happens to children when they are disobedient, inconsiderate and ignorant, I believe, remembering what I was like, that I would’ve found myself above all that. It would’ve seemed that the writer was taking me into his confidence (addressing me directly from time to time – also not the thing now) as someone better behaved and wiser than the little wooden head. I would’ve been pleased to take the high ground that I believe the writer was offering me.
So now I am left pondering on the several reasons why Pinocchio was the winner for me, why I gave it the prize then and still would now. It had a great deal going for it apart from its production, its story and its markings, being a gift from a distant and loved parent. There was the mystery of it having been sent from that unknown place called “war” and “overseas”, then the empowerment of having read it and of having been endorsed as someone worthy and wise. A further notion is that I had been included in the world – had become a world member of “boys and girls of every colour, age and country”.
Patricia Grace’s new novel Dogside Story is reviewed on p4 of this issue.