Not in Wonderland now, Rosemary Lovell-Smith

Harry Wakatipu Comes the Mong
Jack Lasenby
Puffin Books, $15.95,
ISBN 014331808X

No Safe Harbour
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 0908783760

Boy Next Door
Penelope Todd
Longacre Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1877135763

V M Jones
HarperCollins, $16.99,
ISBN 1869504313

These four new novels for young readers are about transition times: transition not so much from child to adult as from child to teen. Of the four, I enjoyed Jack Lasenby’s latest Harry Wakatipu book the most. It’s the first Harry Wakatipu book I have ever read, the first two, when I dipped into them, having quickly convinced me that the tall story is a fun genre but, conversely, that the tall novel is a tedious mistake.

Which goes to show how wrong you can be, because this time I found that persevering with Harry Wakatipu paid off handsomely. There is a plot, though it is a plot of a peculiar kind – terrible corny, terribly Good Keen Man, hopelessly sexist, a mere conglomerate of familiar folktale motifs. Nevertheless the book does want to be read, and it’s a book that brings the whole painful transition business of growing up out into the open.

While the hero-narrator may continue to cry for his mummy in times of weakness, he also runs away from her and the ultimate threat of marriage to his neighbour, Gladys Tremble, on only the second page. After an epic journey to the Vast Untrodden Ureweras he gets himself taken on as a deer-culler at the base camp at Ruatahuna, where the field officer is undoubtedly a real joker. Lasenby provides our hero with something to aspire to, and also with a mate, a lying, bludging, cowardly pack-horse called Harry Wakatipu.

Rule Three of the Deer-Culler’s Daybook says, “Your mate’s the best thing about the bush. Your mate’s always there when you need him.” But Harry Wakatipu’s interests in life are the gratification of the body, stealing condensed milk, and coming the mong over his new-chum mate. During the book Harry sometimes manages to get the upper hand and subjects the narrator to terrible indignities, but the new chum learns quickly to be a real joker himself, and gets his own back on Harry Wakatipu.

What with the bloodhounds and the handcuffs and the buggy-whip that his mother has out after him, what with rescue from the mother by a true mate, Timmy Tremble the drover, what with the haunting of Harry Wakatipu by the Taipo and the haunting of the narrator by the Grey Ghost of the Ruakituri, what with the mysteriously effeminate replacement Field Officer (who wears Nuits de Waharoa scent on his lace hankies), and what with those engrossing tales told by the desirable Chokey (a rat) at night in the hut, there’s plenty happening here.

Tall tales have a marvellously destabilising effect on our familiar fictions, our loving construction of pseudo-realities. Lasenby’s animals talk and act like people: the deer shoots the hunter, the horse rides the man. Bodies bloat and deflate, swaying between animal and human, male and female, in imagination-challenging ways. One can never tell how old the moustache-growing schoolboy narrator is, or what his name is, or how far away anywhere really is from anywhere else, or how much time has passed, or who is delivering the Post Office parcels; one can be certain only that Rule Three in the Deer-Culler’s Daybook will always be a different rule.

When Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, wonders who she is, and the size and shape of her body misbehave, and time and place become uncertainties, and animals talk, and farcical humour and slapstick violence reign, we’re sure we’re reading High Art. Harry Wakatipu reminds us that tall tale tellers invented Carroll’s motifs long before Carroll did. But this is New Zealand, not Wonderland. The incantatory recitation of place-names (Aniwaniwa, Tundra, Mokau, Ruakituri, Waimana, Maungapohatu) relocates us and reminds us of the land’s original owners, with certainty lacking in regard to everything else.

David Hill’s No Safe Harbour is also well-embedded in the local – but time as well as place matter here, because history is being written, and a close watch kept on every passing hour. Stuart, another boy narrator on the edge of manhood, tells what it was like surviving the wreck of the Wahine, an event still painfully alive in my memory. No Safe Harbour was launched at the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea on April 10 this year, 35 years after the Wahine rolled over on her side and the order was given to abandon ship.

It tells a moving story. How does it come across to those who never left for Wellington from Lyttelton rather than Picton, and who haven’t ever been in the Wahine, and have never felt proud of her, as we did in those days feel proud of our national possessions? I cannot help wondering, as I read young Stuart’s rather wooden accounts of astonishingly calm passengers, admirably stalwart crew and stewards, impressive acts of individual heroism, and much caring for others, whether a random group of New Zealanders would act so well in such a terrifying crisis today.

Does a crew work together and take responsibility for passengers’ safety so unselfishly if they’re not all members of the same powerful union? Would the local citizenry turn out to fish the living and dying from the water at the risk of their own lives if they thought of travelling as something they themselves could never afford?

Hill tries to enliven his fictionalised history, filling in Stuart’s and his twin sister Sandra’s grumpy hostility to each other, and the mutual affection they discover in shared danger, making something interesting of crew and other passengers. I hope lots of young people find this book and read it. But it was the Wahine and her wreck, rather than Stuart’s account of it, that came alive as I read this book: and what a gale-tossed strait of change lay between the society I live in now and that gallant little ship of yesteryear, the New Zealand.

In her earlier book Peri, Penelope Todd was interested in parents who were finding themselves and undergoing mid-life crises, and generally making life difficult for their teenage offspring. Boy Next Door has similar themes and a similar setting, two family homes next door to each other, and at times, parental inattention verges on neglect. In Peri it was the heroine who had just moved house and was wrestling with the difficulties -of new house, new parental interests, new high school, new friends to make. In Boy Next Door the heroine, Hilary, looks on as a new neighbour, Joe, makes these difficult transitions. Hilary lost her mother as a child and her longing to be mothered makes her as interested in Joe’s mother as in Joe himself: her widowed father Eric seems to be both interested and frightened by the prospect of recapturing a bit of his wildish lost youth with Joe’s mother Margot.

I liked Peri because the heroine’s life was nice and complicated. There was young love, and a new friend and neighbour, Tamsin, who (it is hinted) might be more interested in having Peri as a girlfriend than she is by mere boys. Peri had an unusual younger brother, Luke, who responded to moving house by deciding to live in a tree. The mobile narrative of this book enabled Todd to have a reasonably successful go at getting inside Luke’s head, an entertaining place to be. Todd treats young readers as if they were older readers. There are encounters, confrontations, and social disasters, but not much happens. Parents have to learn as well as children, and the emphasis is on interiors both domestic and corporeal: in her books, one expresses the other.

A relatively pared-down scenario in Boy Next Door involves only main characters Joe and his too-often absent, too-charming mother in one house, Hilary and her too-often absent, too-busy Dad in the other house. Perhaps because you never see her show the generosity and wiliness that Peri has to deploy in dealing with Luke, I could not get very interested in Hilary as a character.  The kind of book Penelope Todd is interested in writing for teenage readers is one well worth reading, but something (the more restricted narrative stance? the lack of emotional meat?) did not work well for me in Boy Next Door.

Buddy is V M Jones’s first novel. It’s clear she can put a narrative together and hold the reader’s interest but she apparently prefers to ensure a market by making the reader feel good: the result is an over-sentimental plot punctuated by accolades it is hard to imagine anybody offering this side of the television screen.

Chantal, the beautiful new girl at school, spontaneously kisses Josh. His Dad’s new partner Suzanne says she’ll never be able to have her own baby and that Josh, his brother Jake and their Dad “are the only family I’ll ever have. And the only family I’ll ever want.” Mr Mitch, Josh’s teacher, gets up before five every morning to coach Josh’s swimming for the big triathlon and explains this unpaid heroism to Josh’s Dad thus: “Your son’s a natural, Eric. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a boy with so much ability. It’s a rare privilege to teach him.” Shane, Josh’s rival and enemy at school, says “You ran a great race, Josh. I knew you had me beat.” Most unbelievably of all, Josh’s Mum tells him “there is nothing I like better than feeding you. That has to be one of the most rewarding things there is!” But Jones is capable of better things, as the characterisation of Dad and the picture of family dynamics at home with Dad and his new partner Suzanne reveal.


Rosemary Lovell-Smith teaches a second-year children’s literature course called “Words and Pictures” in the Department of English at the University of Auckland. 


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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